Harry Potter et le Prisonnier d’Azkaban

Harry Potter et Le Prisonnier d'Azkaban

Harry Potter et le Prisonnier d’Azkaban par JK Rowling

J’avais déja lu le deuxième livre il y a quelques années. Je ne me souviens de rien du film, sauf les loups-garous. C’est comme si c’était une nouvelle histoire.

1) “‘On ne va quand même pas envoyer quelqu’un à Azkaban simplement parce qu’il a gonflé sa tante comme un ballon!'” – Fudge 

Fudge est un personnage mystérieux, mais je ne veux pas le chercher sur google au cas où il y aurait des spoilers.

2) “‘Sinon, vous allez commencer à voir des présages de mort partout et vous finirez par mourir de peur.’” – le libraire

Ne vivez pas dans la peur.

3) “‘Je sais que tu es brillante, mais personne ne peut être brillant au point de se trouver dans trois classes différentes à la fois.'” – Ron

C’est possible si tu ne vas pas en classe.

4) “‘Pour le neutraliser, il suffit en effect d’éclater de rire.'” – Lupin

Le rire est la solution à tout.

5) “‘Et nous avons un Attrapeur qui nous fait toujours gagner! Et puis, il y a moi.'” – Olivier Dubois

J’ai éclaté de rire.

6) “‘Vous nous avez posé une question et elle connaît la réponse! Pourquoi nous demander quelque chose si vous ne voulez pas qu’on vous le dise?'” – Ron

Il dit la vérité.

7) “‘Quand nous étions en première année, jeunes, insouciants, innocents…'” – George

Ma première année me manque. Toutes les possibilities. Toutes les nouvelles choses.

8) “Pré-au-lard avait l’air d’une carte postale. Les cottages et les boutiques étaient recouverts d’une couche de neigh fraîche.”

Je veux aller à Harry Potter World.

9) “‘Jordan! Vous avez reçu de l’argent pour faire la publicité de L’Éclair de Feu ou quoi?'” – le professeur McGonagall

Le shill.

10) “‘Parfois, les gens sont un peu stupides avec leurs animaux.'” – Hagrid

Le chien est toujours là pour toi. Les gens, non.

J’ai réalisé que j’avais pensé que Severus et Sirius étaient la même personne.

Harry Potter à L’école des Sorciers

Harry Potter à L'école des Sorciers

Harry Potter à L’école des Sorciers par JK Rowling

Je m’ai décidé à réapprendre le français. Mon objectif est de lire tous les livres de la série Harry Potter. Je m’essaierai aussi à écrire ces articles de blog en français. Souhaite moi bonne chance.

1) “‘Après tout ce qu’il a fait… tous les gens qu’il a tués… il n’a pas réussi à tuer un petit garçon?'” – le professeur McGonagall 

C’est l’absurdité de Harry Potter. Ça n’a pas de sens.

2) “‘Je voulais le changer en cochon, mais il ressemble déjà tellement à un cochon qu’il n’y avait pas grand-chose de plus à faire.’” – Hagrid

C’est une bonne insulte.

3) “‘Je pense que l’école ne devrait accepter que les enfants issues des vieilles familles de sorciers.'” – Malfoy

Il y a aussi un problème d’héritage chez Poudlard, comme chez Harvard.

4) “‘Souvenez-vous, c’est la baguette qui choisit son sorcier, pas le contraire.'” – Mr Ollivander

Je veux un baguette, de pain, pas de magique.

5) “‘Dans chaque paquet de Chocogrenouilles, il y a une carte sur un sorcier ou une sorcière célèbre. J’en ai déjà cinq cents, mais il m’en manque encore quelques-unes, Agrippa et Ptolémée, par exemple.'” – Ron

Quand y aura-t-il un NFT pour les cartes Harry Potter?

6) “En plus, le turban dégageait la même odeur que la salle de classe.”

En rétrospective, ce personnage est un peu raciste.

7) “Hermoine leva à nouveau la main comme si elle essayait de toucher le plafond depuis sa chaise.”

C’est la scène classique de Hermoine.

8) “‘On dit: où sont-ils allés s’il te plaît, quand on est poli.'” – Peeves

Peeves est drôle. Pourquoi n’est-il pas dans les films?

9) “‘On aurait pu se faire tuer, ou pire, être renvoyés.'” – Hermoine

Hermoine avait beaucoup de lignes classiques.

10) “‘Ça ne fait pas grand bien de s’installer dans les rêves en oubliant de vivre.'” – Dumbledore

Vivre le moment présent.

Je n’avais jamais lire ce livre en anglais. C’était une expérience à la fois agréable et difficile. Ça me donne envie d’être à nouveau un enfant.

Land of Big Numbers

Land of Big Numbers

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

I first found this book on Twitter late last year and realized it wouldn’t come out for a few months. It seemed like the fiction counterpart to Age of Ambition, which was one of the first books I wrote about on this blog and one that got me back into reading after college. It’s crazy that it’s been almost 7 years.

1) “We were an army, invincible, or if we weren’t invincible we could hit replay at any time, which was pretty close to the same thing.”

When you win, you hit replay to keep the winning streak going. When you lose, you hit replay so you don’t end on a losing streak. Win-win.

2) “‘Did you know in the Song Dynasty it was illegal to throw away any pieces of paper with writing on them?’” – Lulu

No I did not know.

3) “‘Today I had one that tasted like I had just told a good joke and everyone was laughing.'” – Lao Sui

I feel the same when I eat a good mango.

4) “There were a lot of things I hadn’t done: run a marathon, become a doctor, developed a taste for Mediterranean food.”

This perspective is liberating, especially since I also haven’t done any of these things.

5) “When he was young, he had lived through a famine in which they ate the bark off trees! He’d seen the village since then electrified, paved with a road, reinforced with cement, grown noisy with motorcycles and mechanized tractors. He’d seen the village transform itself over a lifetime.”

Sometimes I wonder what life will be like when I’m old. The world was a different place 50 years ago. I’m both excited and apprehensive.

6) “The man who lived upstairs had died and it had taken the other tenants days to notice, days in which the sweetly putrid scent thickened and residents tried to avoid his part of the hall, palms tenting their noses as they came and left.”

Sometimes I also wonder how long it would take for people to notice.

7) “The stock market! It was like discovering a secret passcode. It was such easy money.”

This eponymous story about the stock market perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 2021.

8) “They needed to buy because they had the money and that’s what everyone else was doing; they had simple lives, and it was their children who were going on to do the complicated things.”

F1D vs F2D.

9) “The next day, he ate beef noodle soup for lunch and dinner at the sticky-tabled stall around the corner from his office: beef for cows, beef for bulls, for a bull market.”

Ok I will keep sous-viding steaks in this year of the ox.

10) “‘All the national parks are so crowded now. When we were kids, it was never like this.'” – Eric

National parks and free water at restaurants – the pinnacle achievements of America.

I’m a bit torn on these short stories. They are all intriguing, and the author does a terrific job pointing out the absurd in the ordinary, especially through the lens of Chinese/Chinese-American thought and values. Almost all of the stories end abruptly without a resolution. This was so glaring that it must be an intentional stylistic choice, maybe to convey that the social commentary is very much ongoing. I’m ok with that, but the stories are just not as memorable as I had hoped. That said, I don’t remember 99% of what I read anyway, so as long as I enjoyed the process, what more do I want? Stepping back a bit, I appreciate that this book exists. It’s exactly the type of stories I want to read about every culture.

L’Étranger

L'Étranger

L’Étranger by Albert Camus

After giving up on reading The Plague in French at the beginning of the pandemic, I’m once again determined to read more in French. In fact, I’m now dedicated to learning three languages: Mandarin, French, and Korean. Outside of work, I try to consume everything in one of these three languages: Mandarin for Youtube/podcasts, French for reading, and Korean for plain old language learning. I guess after almost a year, I’ve finally found my Covid hobby. Hopefully it won’t just be a Covid hobby (and not just a hobby either).

1) “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”

We had read parts of L’Étranger in French class, but I had completely forgotten the plot.

2) “Mais d’une part, ce n’est pas de ma faute si on a enterré maman hier au lieu d’aujourd’hui et d’autre part, j’aurais eu mon samedi et mon dimanche de toute façon.

One great benefit, beyond the benefit itself, of unlimited vacation is that I don’t have to force myself to take them on Friday or Monday.

3) “Je me suis appliqué à contenter Raymond parce que je n’avais pas de raison de ne pas le contenter.”

Yes because not no.

4) “Mais selon lui, sa vraie maladie, c’était la vieillesse, et la vieillesse ne se guérit pas.”

The older I get, the more I don’t understand why birthdays are celebrated.

5) “Et c’était comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.”

I liked this ending to Act I.

6) “Tous les êtres sains avaient plus ou moins souhaité la mort de ceux qu’ils aimaient.”

I had to double check what “souhaiter” meant.

7) “‘C’est que je n’ai jamais grand-chose à dire. Alors je me tais.'” – Meursault

I agree with his philosophy. Better to remain silent and be deemed an idiot, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

8) “Il m’a dit que c’était impossible, que tous les hommes croyaient en Dieu, même ceux qui se détournaient de son visage.”

Tous les hommes?

9) “C’était d’ailleurs une idée de maman, et elle le répétait souvent, qu’on finissait par s’habituer à tout.”

A year ago, it was borderline a faux pas to not go outside for a day. Now, a week passes and it feels normal.

10) “J’étais toujours pris par ce qui allait arriver, par aujourd’hui ou par demain.”

Better to look forward than backward.

Every time I read in French, I’m surprised how much I can understand given how little I know. Yes, this is considered one of the easiest books, but it still feels like an accomplishment. One downside of reading in French is that – due to my aversion to using my laptop on my bed – I can’t really lie down and read if I want to easily look words up on the laptop. In total, I jotted down 111 words and added them to Quizlet. Will I actually study them?

Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

I had been hesitant to read this book because it was so blatantly about Asian Americans. To be honest, I don’t know why that’s a negative. Anyway, then I saw that it had won the National Book Award, and that got me over the hump. I guess prestige matters, which is oddly appropriate.

1) “In the world of Black and White, everyone starts out as Generic Asian Man. Everyone who looks like you, anyway. Unless you’re a woman, in which case you start out as Pretty Asian Woman.”

Why are so many books suddenly using Capitalized Nouns? Is it the Trump Twitter Effect? I know in this case, they are characters in a screenplay.

2) “The apologies, the true sign – that this was not the man you once knew, a man who would never have uttered that word to his son, sorry, and in English, no less. Not because he thought himself infallible, but because of the belief that a family should never have to say sorry, or please, or thank you, for that matter, these things being redundant, being contradictory to the parent-son relationship, needing to remain unstated always, these things being the invisible fabric of what a family is.

It’s been said before, but this is the best articulation I’ve read.

3) “Older Brother was blessed, among other things, with the rare phenotype, the kind of Asian dude hair with a slight wave to it (but always in a tight fade), thick and black but with brown or even red highlights.”

Not sure about the brown or red highlights part, but yes to the slight wave.

4) “Shit. Right. You forgot to do the accent.”

You can learn more about an Asian American from his/her accent than any other trait.

5) “Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It’s what the system depends on.”

The problem is that if you jump out of the system, you’re just in another system.

6) “He does not like hamburgers at first, but learns to ask for no mayonnaise or ketchup and eats the meat separately from the bun, lettuce, and tomato.”

The only good part of the hamburger is the meat, and that’s only if the meat is good.

7) “To pray to the minor god, you close your eyes and you imagine a home for you and your family, with four bedrooms and two and a half baths, and you open your eyes and see yourself in southern California, and then you are.”

#626lyfe

8) “There are a few years when you make almost all of your important memories. And then you spend the next few decades reliving them.”

I’m trying to make sure I’m still in the memory-generating years.

9) “Don’t you need to take some responsibility for yourself? For the categories you put us in? Black and White? I mean, come on? Do you think you’re the only one who’s trapped?”

I’m glad the book addresses the hypocrisy, but this last section reads too woke for me.

10) “Your oppression is second class.”

“Model minority” is just a copout.

This is the first book I’ve ever finished on the same day. It’s kind of cheating because half of it was written as a screenplay with a ton of whitespace, so in reality the book is much shorter than the nominal page count. I’m surprised that the headline reviews all focused on how funny the book is. I didn’t find the book funny. It’s witty and fresh, but the underlying ideas were so tragic that it’s not funny.

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This would have been the perfect book for Sweden, but at this rate, it might be a few years before I visit.

1) “He kicked the bins a bit, swore, and fished out a jar from the glass recycling, mumbled something about ‘incompetents’ as he unscrewed its metal lid.”

I feel like I was never properly educated on how to recycle. I see the blue, green, and black bins, and I freeze. And then I just throw it in the trash. I used to feel bad, but after watching the Wendover video about recycling, I’m at peace with myself.

2) “‘Reverse radar and parking sensors and cameras and crap like that. A man who needs all that to back up with a trailer shouldn’t be bloody doing it in the first place.’” – Ove

On the rare occasions when I drive, I’m amazed by how easy driving is. For someone who has minimal experience and would admit to being a bad driver, I shouldn’t be able to casually move a ton of metal at 60mph.

3) “He can’t understand people who long to retire. How can anyone spend their whole life longing for the day when they become superfluous?”

FI >> FIRE

4) “People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.”

Yes this book is corny AF, but it’s good corny.

5) “‘I’m retired.’ ‘I’m on maternity leave.’ ‘I’m an IT consultant.'”

Good one.

6) “Maybe to her destiny was ‘something'; that was none of his business. But to him, destiny was ‘someone.'”

Destiny is definitely someone.

7) “‘You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away.'” – Sonja

I’m stealing this one for pep talk.

8) “‘I just wanted to know what it felt like to be someone you look at.'” – Ove

The Ove and Sonja relationship is so well done.

9) “Ove did not know himself how their animosity had begun, though he knew very well that it ended there and then. Afterwards it was only memories for Ove, and a lack of them for Rune.”

Staying mad is not worth the effort.

10) “For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.”

Is it selfish to want to die first?

This book is sappy and totally predictable, but it’s so heartwarming that all the cliches can be forgiven.

The Godfather

The Godfather

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I’m not a movie person. It’s hard for me to sit there for 2 hours unless I’m already in a movie theater, and you’d have to first convince me to pay $20 for a nap. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never watched The Godfather, a supposed cultural phenomenon. One advantage that books, particularly ebooks, have over movies is that I can read a book from 1928, and it doesn’t feel old. For movies and TV, standard definition is a hard pass. So I thought that reading The Godfather would be my only way into this famous Mafia world. I’d been very hopeful after reading all the flattering reviews, but boy was I wrong. Notwithstanding the decent plot, this was the most poorly written book I’ve read in years.

1) “‘You found America a paradise. You had a good trade, you made a good living, you thought the world a harmless place where you could take your pleasure as you willed. You never armed yourself with true friends.'” – the Don

Growing up in Boston, it’s weird to think of Italians as immigrants.

2) “‘Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendships, you wouldn’t have to ask me to help.’” – the Don

It’s whom you know, not what you know.

3) “‘A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.'” – the Don

Every once in a while, I have fleeting thoughts that it’d be cool to be a lawyer. Fleeting thoughts.

4) “Counting the driver, there were four men in the car with Hagen.”

This first line of chapter 3 is when I started getting worried about finishing the book.

5) “This man got along too well with the black people, which hinted at some flaw of character.”

History moves fast.

6) “It was done in a matter of moments, very quickly and very efficiently.”

Unclear “it”. Passive voice. Redundancy. Sounds vaguely Trumpian.

7) “‘It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal.'” – Michael

I’m in the camp that everything is subjective.

8) “He claimed that there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues.”

The Don’s life advice hard carries this book.

9) “‘I want them to grow up to be All-American kids, real All-American, the whole works. Maybe they or their grandchildren will go into politics.'” – Michael

I’ve honestly never understood what All-American meant.

10) “‘You cannot say “no” to the people you love, not often. That’s the secret.'” – the Don

When in doubt, say yes.

I made it through the book, but it was rough. Goodreads ratings have high precision, but this is one of the rare false positives. Sometimes I wonder if classics and seminal works disappoint because others have emulated them, and the original is no longer that special without the context. That said, The Godfather was truly poorly written, and I might have done better falling asleep during the movie.

Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Chernobyl is one of those post-WWII events that I knew very little about.

1) Pripyat was a town built to support the Chernobyl nuclear reactors and was just 3km away.

Planned cities are always fascinating, especially when they’re called atomgrads.

2) A nuclear reactor requires a moderator, a coolant, and control rods. The RBMK reactors, unlike its Western counterparts at the time, used graphite as moderator and water as coolant.

I finally learned the basics of how nuclear reactors work.

3) During the extended powering down of the nuclear reactor, it became poisoned with xenon. Then when the graphite-tipped control rods were reinserted into the unstable reactor, it exploded.

To think that it all came down to the graphite tips on the boron control rods. Science.

4) The first report by Brukhanov stated that the radiation levels near Unit Four were at 3.6 roentgens, but that was the maximum reading on the device.

You can only measure what your tools can measure. Dosimeters are the nasal swab tests of Chernobyl.

5) By the next morning, the town of Pripyat had been sealed off.

This lockdown hit too close to home. I await the Covid disaster books. There are so many parallels.

6) The initial approach to stop additional nuclear explosions was to drop 5000 tons of sand and clay from helicopters.

This is when it really hit me that humanity had created a problem that it couldn’t really control.

7) The China Syndrome is a movie about a nuclear reactor melting all the way through the ground to China.

When the helicopter bombardments failed, the scientists realized that the radioactive lava could flow downwards into the water tanks. On contact, the water would instantly turn into steam and blow up. Even if this didn’t happen, the radioactive lava could seep into the water table and pollute the river.

8) Most of the patients who received bone marrow operations at Hospital Six still died.

Toptunov and Akimov, the two engineers working the controls that resulted in the explosion, both died of acute radiation syndrome within days.

9) The Liquidation was the giant cleanup effort that called up hundreds of thousands of military reservists.

The efforts included killing animals who’d been exposed to radiation. This got a brief mention in the book but took up a lot of time in the TV series.

10) In order to build the Sarcophagus, they had to remove nuclear debris from the roof. When all the robots failed, humans (bio-robots) did the job.

Thousands of men were needed because they could only stay on the roof for minutes before accumulating a lethal dose of radiation.

Wow. The Chernobyl disaster reads like fiction, but I trust that the author did extensive research to report the facts. I’m shocked that this event isn’t a bigger part of our consciousness (or maybe just mine). Was the human race that close to an absolute disaster? Or does this show how resourceful and resilient humans are? The scariest takeaway is that no single cause was not that outrageous. Secrets, deadlines, cost-cutting, human error – we are just waiting for history to repeat itself.

After reading the book, I got interested in the topic and decided to watch, and naturally binged, the HBO series. One complaint I had about the book was that it was very difficult to follow the characters. There were so many people, institutions, and titles. It also didn’t help that Russian names don’t register as well. The TV show helped a ton to put faces to names. In the book, Legasov was hardly the main man, and I barely remembered his suicide. The producers’ choice to tell the story from his perspective made everything much clearer.

Piranesi

Piranesi

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi is without a doubt one of the most hyped books right now. The wait was long but I was finally able to get my Kindle hands on it. I knew almost nothing about the book going in, but you can’t go wrong with a 4.4 rating on Goodreads for a high anticipated book.

1) “‘I can’t tell you that. It might influence the data.'” – the Other

In a thoroughly wacky world, science and reason rule supreme.

2) “I have named this year the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls.

I couldn’t help but think of the albatross lateral thinking question, the answer to which I never remember.

3) “‘When 16 arrives, I can talk to him and explain that you are a Good Person with many Admirable Qualities.'” – Piranesi

The letter casing took a bit to get used to. This sentence was the #1 candidate for “Most Likely to be a Trump Tweet.”

4) “‘They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology.'” – The Prophet

Coincidentally, I learned about whig history two days ago.

5) “Over the years, as it has grown longer, I have interlaced it with pretty things that I have found or made: seashells, coral beads, pearls, tiny pebbles and interesting fishbones.”

There is very little information provided about Piranesi’s physical appearance. This is almost the only description, a chilling one at that.

6) “It has become clear that I have forgotten many things and – it is best to face things squarely – I now have evidence of periods of serious mental derangement.”

The gaslighting plotline was so well written.

7) “‘The Other had asked me to tell him if I saw the Prophet in the future, not if I had seen him in the past, so I was not exactly lying.'” 

This brought me back to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

8) “POSTSCRIPT: TODAY IS THE SECOND DAY OF THE NEW MOON. THE DAY OF THE FLOOD WILL BE THE FIRST DAY OF THE QUARTER MOON.”

When there is no other frame of reference, the celestial bodies are your friends.

9) “‘I will place you somewhere where the fish and the birds can strip away all this broken flesh.'” – Piranesi

One could say psychopath.

10) “‘Yes. I was free. I came and went. I did not remain in one place. I walked for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometers.'” – Matthew Rose Sorenson

Sometimes I think that even Earth is too small.

Piranesi is one of the rare books that I wanted to stay up and read. I didn’t do it – screwing up my sleep schedule is too dangerous. But I did read it first thing in the morning and during meals. It’s a book like this that has kept my reading going. The world building and the plot twists were fascinating. The book goes from fantasy to mystery to thriller, and yet isn’t really any of them. There is a 200% chance of a Piranesi movie.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This had been on my list for years, but there had always been a more enticing option every time I was in the mood for sci-fi. Here was my chance to finally learn the meaning of life.

1) “People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.”

People want the segment AB.

2) “Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still, quiet, measure voice.

This hitchhiker’s guide is basically the Pokedex right?

3) “The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'” – God

Faith is belief in the absence of proof.

4) “‘I don’t want to die now! I’ve still got a headache! I don’t want to go to heaven with a headache, I’d be all cross and wouldn’t enjoy it.'” – Arthur

TFW you feel a headache coming and you know your day will be ruined.

5) “It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.”

Can we talk about the automated toilets that flush when you even remotely shift your weight?

6) “‘What the photon is it?'” – Zaphod

Corny but I lol’ed.

7) “‘The recession came and we decided it would save a lot of bother if we just slept through it. So we programmed the computers to revive us when it was all over.'” – the old man

I wish I could have slept through this year.

8) “Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”

I find that I increasingly read fiction books through the lens of current events. My overwhelming conclusion thus far is that there are no new ideas. Humans will be humans.

9) “‘Because there are some things you have to do even if you are an enlightened liberal cop who knows all about sensitivity and everything!'” – the cop

Yet another example.

10) “‘What’s up?’ ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been there.'” – Ford, Marvin

It’s been a good decade since I’ve heard a what’s up joke.

This book started slow but became quite fun, all the way until the abrupt ending. It’s one of those books that you read with a smile on your face. That said, I didn’t get that aha moment, and I’m surprised that it has become the meme of memes. It feels like I missed the cultural moment, and now I’m just reading a short quirky sci-fi story. If not for my expectations for the 42 reveal, I’m not sure the story would have been as engaging. Perhaps I’m too old to get it. This is why I hesitate to re-read my childhood favorites. There are right books for the right moments, and this was not it for me.

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

800 pages about monks building a cathedral were some of the most entertaining historical fiction I’ve read.

1) “The edge of the town was downhill from the center, so the refuse from the wealthier neighborhood was washed down the streets to lodge beneath the walls.”

This reminded me of the Parasite scene.

2) “‘Hunger is the best seasoning.’” – Agnes

Never go to the store on an empty stomach.

3) “‘Stephen needed only one more thing to make his victory secure: the support of the Church. For until he could be crowned at Westminster by the archbishop he would not really be king.'” – Francis

One of my favorite themes in the book was the power struggle between the crown and the church.

4) “‘A man may just as easily frustrate the will of God through excessive humility.'” – Cuthbert

Extreme humility is even more annoying than extreme overconfidence.

5) “‘Let them watch Remigius blunder and bungle from day to day while your image remains shining and perfect in their minds.'” – Milius

This is the Biden strategy. If you don’t do anything, you can’t do anything wrong.

6) “A bridge was a means of access for attackers, and the more readily it fell down, the safer the castle was.”

I inadvertently continued my castle series.

7) “‘I’ve bought it from her. And I’ve sold it to you.'” – Philip

As I read this most English of stories, I couldn’t resist the urge to tie its themes to PPE (Philosophy, Politics, Economics).

8) “Drawing always seemed a miracle to people who could not do it.”

I recently rediscovered my absolute lack of drawing skills during a “sketching” session.

9) “‘Tradition says a man will spend a third of a day walking to the market, a third of a day at the market, and a third of a day walking home.'” – Waleran

900 years later, a man spends his full day scrolling through Amazon.

10) “‘Pray for miracles, but plant cabbages.'” – Peter

Is this the medieval version of shoot for the stars and land on the moon?

This book felt like Game of Thrones without the dragons. The characters are very well written and mostly memorable. More impressively, the author made masonry and church architecture interesting. The next time I visit a cathedral, I might take a few more minutes to admire how it was built. I’m not surprised that this was made into a TV series, as it’s drama at its best. The action is fast-paced, and the plot twists are just surprising enough to keep intrigue high, until the very end when the good guys had the perfect ending.

Salmon

Salmon

Salmon by Mark Kurlansky

Time for another food book. If I count both its cooked and raw forms, salmon is probably my most frequently eaten meat.

1) Fishery limits are typically based on harvestable surplus.

This is the number of fish that can be harvested and still maintain the population.

2) All salmon belong to the Salmonidae family but not all Salmonidae are salmon.

The taxonomy of fish is very confusing. The two main genera of salmon are Salmo (Atlantic salmon) and Oncorhynchus (Pacific salmon). Salmon are somewhat defined by their anadromous characteristic, as they are born in freshwater, go to the ocean, and return to freshwater to spawn. However, there are trouts that also go to sea and salmon that do not.

3) Salmon gain 95% of their size at sea.

A salmon looks completely different throughout its life. In particular, salmon flesh turns red from its diet during its years in the ocean. After they return to freshwater, they stop eating, and the pigment is transferred to its skin around spawning time.

4) In England, a king’s gap is the leeway built into dams that allows salmon to swim past.

Before reading this book, I had never considered the negative externalities of dams and hydroelectric power.

5) According to legends, the Loch Ness monster was first spotted by a water bailiff called Campbell.

Tangential to salmon, but I cracked up at “water bailiff.”

6) Starting with Taft in 1912, the presentation of the first Penobscot salmon of the year to the president became an annual tradition.

As a sign of the decline of salmon in New England, this tradition has now ended.

7) The 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborgines Protection Act claimed that the Ainu people were assimilated and thus did not have special rights.

I coincidentally just listened to a podcast about this.

8) Chinese migrants started working at canneries on the Columbia River in the early 1870s.

Sometimes I forget about the Chinese Exclusion Act. Learning history makes everything seem a bit less crazy.

9) The construction of the Dalles Dam destroyed Celilo Falls, one of the most important salmon fishing sites for Native Americans in the Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest is beautiful, but its (recent) history is anything but.

10) Salmon farms are often hit with sea lice, which require artificial chemicals to kill.

I never really understood what “farmed” salmon meant. They literally put thousands (millions?) of salmon in cages in the ocean. It’s sad that without salmon farming, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat any salmon.

This book was less of a food book than an ecology book. Through the demise of salmon, the author shows how humans have destroyed nature for our own benefit. I learned a ton about salmon, but all of the new knowledge will just make me feel more guilty the next time I casually defrost a pack of frozen farmed salmon and put it in the oven.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

The second, and probably last, of my October castle series is more fantasy than horror. I’ve seen a lot of recent praise for Howl’s Moving Castle. Since I’ve fallen asleep during every Miyazaki film I’ve attempted to watch, I figured I might be better off reading the book. I was surprised to learn that this story was written by a British author. It’s supposedly a children’s book, but honestly I had to google a good number of words. There will always be random objects – especially plants –  that I’ve never cared to memorize before.

1) “Either she could not find the time, or she could not find the energy, or it seemed a great distance to Market Square, or she remembered that on her own she was in danger from Wizard Howl.”

Life is just one excuse after another.

2) “‘Mother knows you don’t have to be unkind to someone in order to exploit them.’” – Martha

The theme of exploitation of others throughout was somewhat weird.

3) “As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.”

I’m looking forward to naturally acquiring the ability to DGAF as I get older. It’s definitely already happening.

4) “The main magic box had a glass front like the one downstairs, but it seemed to be showing writing and diagrams more than pictures. All the boxes grew on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall at one side of the room.”

It took me so long to figure out what the floppy white stalks were.

5) “‘Have you heard of a land called Wales?’ ‘No, is it under the sea?'” – the Witch, Sophie

This reminded me of a rainy day trip to Wales back when I was in England.

6) “‘Apply your fiendish mind to the matter, or even think, if you know how.'” – Howl

Are we supposed to like Howl? Sometimes when I read older books, I get the sense they wouldn’t get published nowadays.

7) “‘Calcifer, were you ever a falling star?'” – Sophie

Calcifer is Olaf.

8) “His blue face was always leaning eagerly out of the grate when Sophie and Michael came in with their flowers. ‘I want to see what it’s like out there,’ he said.”

And because he is Olaf, Calcifer is my favorite character.

9) “For as the scarecrow fell across the bench, there came the fizzing jolt of strong magic and the skull melted into the scarecrow’s turnip head.”

Towards the end, we really ramp up on the ridiculous magic and everything goes haywire.

10) “‘I think we ought to live happily ever after.'” – Howl

This came out of nowhere, and of course Sophie says yes.

How many years has it been since I last read a fairytale? Even though this is a children’s book, I actually had some trouble following the plot and the characters. Maybe magic has lost its charm on me.

We Have Always Lived in a Castle

We Have Always Lived in a Castle

We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson

It’s October, and I’m starting my “castle” series to celebrate my least holiday: Halloween.

1) “I played a game when I did the shopping. I thought about the children’s games where the board is marked into little spaces and each player moves according to a throw of the dice; there were always dangers, like ‘lose one turn’ and ‘go back four spaces’ and ‘return to start,’ and little helps, like ‘advance three spaces’ and ‘take an extra turn.'”

Is it neurotic to avoid stepping on pavement cracks?

2) “‘The highway is built for common people, and my front door is private.’” – Mother

I really liked the early chapters that set the scene of the isolated castle.

3) “‘My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.'” – Uncle Julian

The past incident was methodically revealed piecemeal through dialogue.

4) “On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods.”

I really thought something was going to happen with these.

5) “‘Charles. You are Arthur’s son, but you resemble my brother John, who is dead.'” – Uncle Julian

What a weird uncle.

6) “‘Cousin Mary doesn’t like me. I wonder if Cousin Mary knows how I get even with people who don’t like me?'” – Charles

For once, the cat doesn’t talk. But the humans talk to the cats.

7) “‘My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man. She did not survive the loss of her family; I suppose you knew that.'” – Uncle Julian

This book is not horror, but it is undeniably eerie.

8) “I did not see any need to move quickly or to run shrieking around the house because the fire did not seem to be hurrying itself.”

Reading this around the time of the wildfires was a bit worrisome.

9) “‘The way you did before?'” – Constance

The plot twist was not a surprise but executed well.

10) “In the mornings when I awakened I would go at once down the hall to make sure the front door was locked.”

It sounds like a sad way to live, except I do the same at night.

This book was not what I expected. I was looking for some horror, and this wasn’t it. That said, I appreciated the creepy vibes and the witty dialogue. Afterwards, I found out that Jackson also wrote “The Lottery,” one of the most memorable short stories I read in middle school.

String Theory

stringtheory

String Theory by David Foster Wallace

If I had to list my hobbies, tennis and reading would be the top two. It is rare that I get a chance to kill two birds with one stone. There’s a dearth of tennis writing out there, the majority of which are biographies, probably my least favorite genre. Even the recent Members Only was barely about tennis at all. So I was glad to have remembered about these essays. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever read Infinite Jest, so this was my shot at David Foster Wallace.

1) “Because tennis courts are for sun- and eye-reasons always laid lengthwise north-south, and because the land in Central Illinois rises very gently as one moves east toward Indiana and the subtle geologic summit that sends rivers doubled back against their own feeders somewhere in the east of that state, the court’s forehand half, for a rightie facing north, always seem physically uphill from the backhand.”

First, I didn’t know that about tennis court orientation (is it even true?). Second, this passage paints such a vivid picture of tennis. I don’t have the writing skills to describe how good this writing is.

2) “Tornadoes, for me, were a transfiguration. Like all serious winds, they were our little stretch of plain’s z coordinate, a move up from the Euclidean monotone of furrow, road, axis, and grid.

DFW’s appreciation of tennis stems from its mathematical beauty.

3) “‘At 2-3, I broke Chris, then she broke me, and I broke her again, so we were at 4-4.'” – Tracy Austin biography

I loled multiple times at the savagery in the Tracy Austin chapter.

4) “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”

I’ve had this thought exercise many times with my friends. Would I rather be top 100 in tennis or math? The fact that the 100th best tennis player in the world can barely make a living is a travesty.

5) “The idea that there can be wholly distinct levels to competitive tennis – levels so distinct that what’s being played is in essence a whole different game – might seem to you weird and hyperbolic.”

I’ve also discussed this with friends. How many orders of bagels are there? How many 6-0 levels am I away from Federer? Maybe 6-7. And how many 6-0 levels are below me?

6) “No part of Stade Jerry is nonsmoking, and at matches so many spectators are chain-smoking du Maurier cigarettes that at times a slight breeze will carry the crowd’s exhaled cloud of smoke out over the court, transforming the players into nacreous silhouettes for a moment before the cloud ascends.”

Every time I smell cigarettes, I feel like I’ve time traveled back 20 years.

7) “Apparently over 50 percent of tickets for this year’s Open were pre-sold to corporations, who like to use them for cultivation of clients and the entertainment of their own executives.”

The most frustrating part of the US Open experience is browsing through the slim pickings of seats on Ticketmaster and then showing up to a half-empty stadium.

8) “Part of the beauty of the tennis here is the way the artistry and energy are bounded by specific lines on court, but the beauty of the commerce is the way it’s un- and never bounded.”

The onslaught of capitalism at the US Open is a shock to the senses. If you’re not a card-carrying (Amex or Chase) millionaire, then GTFO.

9) “English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on.”

I have none of these.

10) “Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh.”

It was a bit strange to read DFW’s views on the transition of the men’s game into power baseliners. A decade later, we just take it for granted. For the most part, Federer is still the outlier. Almost everyone else is a slight variation on solid serve, big forehand, big backhand.

I was sad when this book ended and even more sad when I realized that he would never write any more tennis essays. DFW deemed Federer a genius, but he himself is a genius too, for gifting the world its zenith of tennis writing from a bonafide fan.

The City We Became

The City We Became

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

I recently learned that N.K. Jemisin is a big deal in science fiction. When I saw her new book about New York, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

1) “Miracles exist, Ralph Ellison was right, any NYPD you can walk away from, hallelujah.”

For better or worse, recent events have nudged me to read more books by African American writers, and it’s saddening to see how long they’ve been talking about policing issues.

2) “The Enemy tries some kind of fucked-up wiggly shit – it’s all tentacles – and I snarl and bite into it ’cause New Yorkers eat damn near as much sushi as Tokyo, mercury and all.

I quickly started to wonder whether this book was YA (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the language suggests otherwise.

3) “And just to add insult to injury? I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God.”

I get what the author is trying to do, but it’s too much for me.

4) “‘Goddamn techies keep trying to take over, and they’ll probably win eventually, but for now all they got’s a polluted-ass neighborhood called Long Island City. Which is on Long Island because Queens is on Long Island, but isn’t part of Long Island. You follow?'” – Brooklyn

I stayed at LIC once for the US Open. It was indeed confusing.

5) “‘Something has made it more Queens, so to speak, than the rest of Queens.'” – Manny

The whole book is full of cringe dialogue like this.

6) “You thinking I should go high? Nah! I go low.”

This must be a reference to Michelle Obama.

7) “The goal, Jess explains, is something that will look like a spontaneous show of support from the public.”

I thought it was intriguing that the author deliberately showed how both sides manipulated our beloved YouTube and social media.

8) “Everything that happens everywhere else happens on Staten Island, too, but here people try not to see the indecencies, the domestic violence, the drug use. And then, having denied what’s right in front of their eyes, they tell themselves that at least they’re living in a good place full of good people. At least it’s not the city.”

America’s superpower is to ignore the foreclosure sign on its big house with the green lawn and the white picket fence.

9) “‘Weeeeelllll, an adapter usually connects one way of doing a thing to a different way of doing a thing, right?'” – the Woman

Honestly I’ve never thought of an adapter in this way, but it is exactly what an adapter is.

10) “He shakes his head, muttering in Cantonese about barbaric American health care for a moment before resuming English.”

This is quintessential Hong Kong behavior. I found Hong the character extremely underdeveloped. I’m assuming he shows up in the sequels.

This book was SJW sci-fi through and through, and it was way too in-your-face for me. Perhaps that was the point. I still like the concept of building a fantasy world around real cities like New York, but the plot and – in particular – the dialogue were very cringey. The story felt like a blend of Power Rangers and Sailor Moon. Despite this disappointing introduction, I might still try Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy at some point.

American Psycho

American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho is one of those references I come across all the time that I’m not familiar with. The only thing I vaguely knew about was the business card scene.

1) “‘This was when he ordered the tuna cappuccino and I’m sure if left unattended would have ordered the salmon au lait.'” – Timothy

I haven’t acquired the taste for carpaccio so I’d go with cappuccino as well.

2) “‘Okay, so when wearing a tuxedo how do you keep the front of your shirt from riding up?’” – Preston

When was the last time I wore a tux? When is the next time I will wear one?

3) “I pick up Montgomery’s card and actually finger it, for the sensation the card gives off to the pads of my fingers.”

The credit card scene is way less funny and absurd in the book.

4) “He sticks his own platinum American Express card into the powder, bringing it up to his nose to inhale it.” 

I’m guessing not everyone had a platinum AMEX back in the 1980s.

5) “On my way into the Chinese cleaners I brush past a crying bum, an old man, forty or fifty, fat and grizzled, and just as I’m opening the door I notice, to top it off, that he’s also blind and I step on his foot, which is actually a stump, causing him to drop his cup, scattering change all over the sidewalk.”

Some passages in this book are tough to stomach.

6) “‘Is that Donald Trump’s car?'” – Patrick

I was shocked at how often Trump comes up. I feel like older people have a completely different view of Trump and Clinton because they grew up with them. In 20 years, Zuckerberg will run for office, and I’ll be the boomer.

7) “Paul Owen has called me Marcus four times and Evelyn, much to my relief, Cecilia twice.”

All Wall Street bankers are interchangeable.

8) “‘I’m into, oh, murders and executions mostly. It depends.'” – Patrick; “‘Well, most guys I know who work in mergers and acquisitions don’t really like it.'” – Daisy

I haven’t heard this brilliant pun before.

9) “I stole a urinal cake from the men’s room when the attendant wasn’t looking. At home I covered it with a cheap chocolate syrup, froze it, then placed it in an empty Godiva box, tying a silk bow around it.”

I found myself questioning the author several times. How does he come up with this?

10) “‘I’ll have a decapitated coffee also…. I mean … decaffeinated.'” – Patrick

Psycho.

This book was rough. I slogged through the excruciating descriptions of outfits and the in-depth reviews of music albums. And then there was the sheer level of gore and violence. I was shocked that it has leaped into pop culture. I haven’t watched the movie, but I checked out some Youtube clips after finishing the book. It looks like the movie is a lot less repulsive and is more of a comedy. The book was satirically funny at times, but mostly it was just horrifying.

Hard Landing

Hard Landing

Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger

The airline industry has always fascinated me. For three years, I got an up-close look at its glamours and foibles. From pricing, to routing, to frequent flyer programs, to the fundamental technology, to bailouts, there is no shortage of fodder for discussion. While flying has become a mundane part of (pre-covid) life, every takeoff still holds a certain mystique that makes life just a bit more exciting.

1) Charles Lindbergh started his career as a barnstormer.

Then he flew airmail between St. Louis and Chicago, before achieving world fame by flying between New York and Paris.

2) In 1930, the Post Master General hosted the “Spoils Conference” that allocated mail routes and gave birth to the Big Four airlines.

United controlled the north routes through Chicago, TWA the center routes through St. Louis, American the southern routes through Dallas, and Eastern the north-south routes on the east coast.

3) Southwest was threatened for operating out of Dallas Love Field.

However, the language on the municipal bonds funding the construction of DFW used the word “certified airlines.” Southwest was not a certified airline and continued to operate out of Love Field. Playing into its brand image, Southwest made its ticker symbol LUV.

4) Airlines had a mutual aid pact in which participating airlines would chip in to help an airline under strike.

What a crazy concept. At one point, Lorenzo said that he needed a strike.

5) Under Lorenzo, Texas International launched 50% off “Peanut Fares.”

Pre-deregulation, cross-state fares had been heavily regulated, and the birth of peanut fares was a stark deviation from norms.

6) American’s SABRE booking system nudged travel agents to book American Airlines flights, even when better alternatives were available.

American noticed that travel agents were much more likely to book the first result. The airline thus pushed other results to the bottom or just didn’t show them at all. Is this the early Google?

7) Los Conquistadores del Cielo is an exclusive club of airline executives.

An all-boys club that meets in Wyoming. The story writes itself.

8) In 1981, 13K air traffic controllers went on strike and were fired by Reagan.

This was a major turning point for union power. If I took anything away from this book, it’s the pivotal role unions played in the success and failure of airlines. Nowadays, unions seem powerless.

9) In the early 1980s, American implemented b-scales, meaning that new pilots and flight attendants would be paid less than their counterparts who had joined earlier.

Over time, the average labor cost would thus go down. This policy was especially successful early on because the majority of employees were not b-scale and were thus unaffected.

10) United owned Westin, Hilton, and Hertz at various points in history.

The parent company renamed itself to Allegis and tried to play as a broader travel company. United employees revolted and attempted a buyout. Ultimately, United sold off all non-airline subsidiaries.

It was really difficult to keep track of everything in this book. There were so many CEOs that jumped ship back and forth, and dozens of airlines that went in and out of mergers. That said, I enjoyed learning more about the history of all these airlines. I now have more perspective on why things are the way they are. Why does every American flight route through Dallas? Why does Southwest do non-assigned seating? This book was written in 1996, and so much has happened since. 9/11, 2008, COVID. The post script included an especially anachronistic discussion on how the internet might decrease flight demand. It goes to show that no one can predict anything, other than the fact that your flight will be delayed.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima

I’m grateful that there’s a seemingly endless list of translated Japanese books. I wish every book were available in every language. We can probably do that now with models, but ironically these models can also do the original writing.

1) “Rex enjoyed a reputation for uncanny discernment of fine quality, particularly in imported men’s wear and accessories.”

Rex is a luxury shop.

2) “‘The important things are the boxes and wrapping – they’re the reality of a gift, don’t you think?'” – Yoriko

In Japan, yes.

3) “‘That sailor is terrific! He’s like a fantastic beast that’s just come out of the sea all dripping wet. Last night I watched him go to bed with my mother.'” – Noboru

The plot vacillates between highly disturbing and woefully mundane.

4) “He checked himself for pity; like a lighted window seen from an express train, it flickered for an instant in the distance and disappeared.” 

This really captures the magic of train riding.

5) “Charges Against Ryuji Tsukazaki ONE: smiling at me in a cowardly, ingratiating way when I met him this noon.”

Noboru and Ryuji only interact a few times in the entire story, but every interaction is an unmitigated disaster.

6) “He would be thirty-four in May. It was time to abandon the dream he had cherished too long. Time to realize that no specially tailored glory was waiting for him.”

As with all books, it’s important to understand the author’s background and mindset.

7) “‘I’ll tell you one thing, though: no matter how long you’ve been on a ship, you never get used to storms.'” – Ryuji

No matter how many times I fly, I still pass out.

8) “Father, can you give me one single reason why you go on living? Wouldn’t it be better just to fade away as quickly as possible?”

Not since Lord of the Flies have I been so afraid of teenagers.

9) “‘I’ll seal that hole up in the morning and then we can all forget this whole unpleasant evening.'” – Ryuji

Ah ha, a metaphor.

10) “Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.”

I was not expecting the abrupt ending, but what a great punchline.

For me, this book was a mix of Norwegian Wood and Lord of the Flies. It was a very short but stinging read.

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Every Russia-related book I’ve read has been top notch. The Brothers Karamazov, A Gentleman in Moscow, Secondhand Time – they’re all drastically different but equally engaging. After reading this book, I can add one more, to the top of the list.

1) “‘But only three of them shall be executed, for, in accordance with law and custom, in honor of the Passover holiday, one of the condemned, as chosen by the Lesser Sinedrion and confirmed by the power of Rome, shall have his contemptible life restored to him by the magnanimous Emperor Caesar.'” – Pilate

As someone not familiar with the story of Jesus or Jewish tradition, I had trouble parsing fiction from history regarding Pontius Pilate. That said, does anyone really know what happened?

2) “But neither the conductress nor the passengers were amazed by the most important thing of all, namely, that a cat was not merely getting on a streetcar, which wasn’t so bad, but that he intended to pay his fare!”

Talking cat is synonymous with magic realism.

3) “‘A man in his underwear can tramp around Moscow only if he’s in police custody, and only if he’s going to one place – the police station.'” – Archibald Archibaldovich

This is patently false.

4) “I have just been cut in half by a streetcar at Patriarch’s. Funeral Friday 3 p.m. Come. Berlioz.” 

Telegrams remind me of back when we had a limited number of texts. I didn’t have to worry though. No one texted me.

5) “‘Second-grade fresh – that’s absurd! Freshness comes in only one grade – first-grade, and that’s it. And if the sturgeon’s second-grade fresh, that means it’s rotten!'” – Woland

When was the last time I had really fresh fish?

6) “Take, for example, the city-dweller I heard about, who got a three-room apartment on Zemlyany Embankment and then turned it into four rooms in a flash without recourse to the fifth dimension or to anything else that goes beyond human reason, namely, by dividing one of the rooms in two with a partition.”

Who needs walls when you can have partitions?

7) “‘The Procurator is never wrong, but this time he is mistaken.'” – Afranius

Doublespeak at its best.

8) “‘I challenge you to a duel!'” – Behemoth the cat

I don’t like cats, but there is no doubt that Behemoth was the best character.

9) “‘I protest! Dostoevsky is immortal!'” – Behemoth the cat

Latin is not dead. Latin is immortal.

10) “‘What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people.'” – Woland

Indeed, the best part of a tree is the shade.

I had high expectations coming in and was not disappointed. The story was fast-paced, funny, and action-packed, yet thought provoking. Most of the characters popped, except for the protagonist Master who I found boring. The side plot of Jesus served as a smart juxtaposition to the chaos happening in Moscow. This really has become one of my favorite books.

The Black Swan

The Black Swan

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Every year, there’s a new black swan event.

1) The Platonic fold is where clean models meet messy reality.

Taleb spends most of the book attacking various ideas, one of which is Platonicity – our tendency to dumb down reality into understandable models and representations. The Platonic fold reminds me of the event horizon.

2) Umberto Eco had a 30,000-book library. Unread books are more important than read books.

Is there a name for the phenomenon where once you learn about something, you see it all the time?

3) The distinction between scalable and non-scalable professions is whether you need to put in more labor and time.

This idea is not revolutionary but perhaps the most practically important. For me, it comes down to whether my output can be put to work when I’m not actually working. I always remind myself whenever I inevitably think about opening a coffee shop.

4) Pyrrhonian skepticism is a school of thought that emphasized achieving happiness by not making judgments.

Taleb talks a decent amount of philosophy. At the risk of completely misunderstanding it, I’d say I’m somewhat of a Pyrrhonian skeptic.

5) Hempel’s raven paradox is … absurd.

a) If something is a swan, then it is white. b) Thus, if something is not white, then it is not a swan. c) This car is not white, and it is not a swan. c) confirms b). Since a) and b) are equivalent, seeing a non-white car has proven that all swans are white. QED.

6) In a good murder mystery, the sum of each character’s probability of being the murderer should be over 100%.

For my next mystery book, I’m going to try harder to guess the culprit. I feel like I’m too afraid to be wrong.

7) Siegfried and Roy ended their show when a tiger attacked Roy in 2003.

The real risk a casino faces is not gambling losses.

8) The Lucas critique is the idea that we can’t measure the impact of an economic forecast because its existence changes the future.

A significant portion of this book is a diatribe against economists. Even though I’m an economics major, I generally agree with Taleb’s points. Economists spend way too much effort trying to explain the past. It’s ultimately a futile effort and a waste of time.

9) The word “serendipity” comes from The Three Princes of Serendip (Sri Lanka).

Etymology is fun. Sri Lanka also gave us Ceylon tea.

10) The fractal, coined by Mandelbrot, preserves its properties across scale.

Taleb added a welcome dimension to his arguments by sprinkling some mathematics on Gaussian vs fractals.

I’d held out on reading this for years. I was hesitant because I didn’t want to read a Malcolm Gladwell-style social science book. This turned out to be anything but. Instead, this book verged on being a full-out rant. Taleb repeatedly praises the select few he admires while ripping apart everyone else. Most of his points are solid. I wholeheartedly agree with the core concept that the world is messy and people mistakenly try to explain away randomness. That said, I have two gripes. 1) He discredits “experts” who selectively cite whatever supports their claims. Yes, this is blatantly true, but isn’t this entire book also guilty? 2) He is against advice and then goes on to give a bunch of his own. To be fair, the advice at the end made the manifesto much more actionable, but it’s difficult to say advice is bad and then write a book. All in all, the takeaway is: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Members Only

Members Only

Members Only by Sameer Pandya

I’ve never read a tennis book. There are a few hyped biographies out there, but the idea of reading about a player’s life is not as appealing as just watching their matches. Even for those retired, their stories aren’t over. I’d rather watch them commentate or listen to their podcast updates.

1) “The black students were brought in to diversify the school, but remained very much separate within it.”

When I was in middle and high school, I never truly thought about the METCO program. I only knew that almost all black students at the school were in the program and that they took buses in from Boston. It was never a controversial topic for me. It was just part of school. Young, simple, naive.

2) “‘The Browns are our last family. And funnily enough, their sponsors are the Blacks.'” – Suzanne

The Browns are black. The Blacks are white.

3) “Jan took the family to spend a year in Spain so their kids could get used to playing on real, red clay before everyone was taking a year off and calling it a sabbatical.”

This is the dream.

4) “‘We were the contingent labor that made this university –  and most universities around the country – run these days.'” 

The more removed I am, the more I realize how uniquely insane colleges are. The system is built on professors with lifetime jobs who are horrific at teaching, assisted by armies of PhDs barely making any money, all funded by students skipping classes, borrowing federal loans, and who will one day feel nostalgic and donate back to the system.

5) “I was about to ask if that was short for something. I didn’t think this new generation of Indian Americans had gotten in the habit of Americanizing their names.”

Huh, this is true. Who are the Davids and Kevins?

6) “A week earlier, I’d gone to my internist for my yearly checkup, and had left thankful that my nagging cough had revealed nothing.”

Drink more water. Sleep more.

7) “‘One group thinks I don’t like black people and another thinks I don’t like whites. How did I get here?'”

This is the book summarized in one sentence.

8) “This time, I would play better than I ever had before. This time, I would move to all the right places at exactly the right time.”

The best part of playing tennis is that there is always a chance you will play the best you’ve ever played.

9) “Don’t Gandhi the shot.”

I’ll remember this next time.

10) “But before I knew what was happening, we were down 0-6 1-5.”

My tennis epithet should be 0-6 1-5.

I had listened to a podcast about the book beforehand, so I knew that the story really had little to do with tennis. This book was about race and cancel culture. It couldn’t have been more timely. I found the execution clumsy at times. The constant flashbacks jolted the story, and some plot points were borderline cringe. Still, I can’t fault a tennis book.

My Name is Red

My Name is Red

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I had wanted to save this book until after I visited Turkey. That won’t happen any time soon.

1) “‘The drinking of coffee is an absolute sin! Our Glorious Prophet did not partake of coffee because he knew it dulled the intellect, caused ulcers, hernia, and sterility; he understood that coffee was nothing but the Devil’s ruse.'” – Husret Hoja

I like when different books I read discuss the same topic. Within a short span, The Devil’s Cup, 50 Inventions, and this book have all talked about the crackdown on coffee.

2) “Of course, I could’ve immediately come back here to the home of my father, but according to the kadi judge my husband was legally alive, and were I to anger my in-laws, they might not stop at forcing my children and me back to my husband’s home, but humiliate us further by having me and my father, who had ‘detained’ me, punished.”

Shekure is probably the most complicated character in the story. She is set up as a strong heroine who must overcome societal expectations, but she is far from innocent.

3) “Even today, fearing that others will consider this proof of a lack of talent and skill, they pretend to be blind.”

Only when blind can one truly see what Allah sees.

4) “‘Each one was different from the next. They were distinctive, unique human faces!'” – Enishte

The prevailing theme of the book was the tension between the old “Herat” way of illuminations vs the new “Frankish” way of portraits. It took me a bit to wrap my head around this since drawing people as their unique selves is so ingrained in modern day (western) art.

5) “The meaning of color is that it is there before us and we see it. Red cannot be explained to he who cannot see.”

Colorblindness proves that everything is subjective.

6) “‘As I belong to the Shafu sect, there is nothing contrary to the Holy book or my creed in my granting the divorce of this unfortunate Shekure, whose husband has been missing at the front for four years.'” – Proxy Effendi

In a book full of subtle mockeries, this divorce topped them all.

7) “They’ll depict me at a gallop with both of my forelegs extended at the same time. There isn’t a horse in this world that runs like a rabbit. If one of my forelegs is forward, the other is aft.”

I very much enjoyed the chapters narrated by objects, animals, and concepts.

8) “In a Frankish painting, this would result in our stepping outside both the frame and the painting; in a painting made following the example of the great masters of Herat, it’d bring us to the place from which Allah looks upon us; in a Chinese painting, we’d be trapped, because Chinese illustrations are infinite.”

It’s hard for me to find examples of such distinct styles of the same art form nowadays, except maybe Japanese animation.

9) “‘The greatest compliment you can pay a painter is to say that his work has stimulated your own enthusiasm to illustrate.'” – Master Osman

True of any profession.

10) “‘Shekure, your husband’s here.’ ‘Which one?'” – Black, Shekure

lol.

This book reads like a classic. It has a bit of everything – mystery, love story, art commentary – all told in a unique narrative structure. It was a tough slog at times, but I’m glad I read it as it really was a rich story.

Trustworthy Online Controlled Experiments

Trustworthy Online Controlled Experiments

Trustworthy Online Controlled Experiments by Diane Tang, Ron Kohavi, Ya Xu

Almost 3 years in, I have a good sense of which parts of my job I enjoy. Running experiments is definitely one of them. That’s when we have the most agency and can explicitly find casual effects, as opposed to conducting pure analysis, which often results in circular logic. On the surface, experimentation is the most scientific part of the data science purview. In reality, it’s more art than science. Even though I’ve run over a dozen experiments, each new one still has its unique problems. I’ve always wanted to write a go-to doc for experimentation, but there are truly so many edge cases that there are no edge cases. Going into this book, I was unsure how much I’d learn. Getting an experiment right is all about getting the smallest details right.

1) At Slack, only 30% of monetization experiments show positive results. 

Putting aside the accuracy of this metric, the broader point is that most experiments should and do fail. There is a strong incentive to only run experiments that will succeed or to spin results in a positive light. It takes a lot to admit that some ideas don’t work.

2) Bing spent two years and $25 million integrating social media and failed.

One meta aspect of experimentation is knowing when to move on and when to tweak.

3) Some metrics have growing variance, so running an experiment longer doesn’t necessarily help.

I’ve never conceptualized this before.

4) Twyman’s law states that the more unusual the data, the more likely it’s wrong.

This is the painful reality of data “insights.” In most cases, insights are just common sense. When you find something weird, you have to triple check your work because most likely it’s wrong.

5) For Bing, over 50% of US traffic and over 90% of Chinese/Russia traffic are bots.

I’m biased to think that rideshare experimentation is the most difficult because of the interference effects, but this book gave me a new appreciation for every platform’s unique challenges. At the end of the day, experimentation comes down to proper counting, and proper counting is very difficult no matter the domain.

6) Kaiwei Ni made an Instagram ad with a fake piece of hair.

The literal clickbait.

7) In Hanoi, a rat tail bounty program led to rat farming.

The classic analogy in experimentation is counting clicks. The goal is to incentivize the desired behavior. The hard part is defining what that behavior is.

8) Interleaving experiments can lead to faster algorithm iterations.

Netflix has a blog post on interleaving. The gist is that interleaving has higher sensitivity. Consider that in a standard A/B experiment, power users can easily skew results. By presenting both algorithms to each user, Netflix can more quickly measure effects.

9) Binary variables tend to have lower variance and are generally better metrics.

While not always applicable, yes/no variables are indeed easier to work with. Unbounded metrics add so much variance that they muddle the analysis.

10) n = 16sd^2/mde^2

Power analysis is an art, but this formula helps.

The first half of this book, as explicitly stated, is aimed at a more general audience. Even there, I learned some useful tidbits. The second half homes in on the intricacies of experimentation. It highlights practical issues like instrumentation, exposures, metric variance, etc. More than anything, it validates the idea that experimentation – unsurprisingly – is full of unclear tradeoffs. Best practices are necessary but insufficient to good experimentation.

The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Her Station Eleven is everywhere but the pandemic setting was too on the nose so I decided to read her new book.

1) “‘Our guests in Caiette want to come to the wilderness, but they don’t want to be in the wilderness. They just want to look at it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel.'” – Raphael

I’m guilty.

2) “‘You can tune in to the conversation at the next table, or you can let that become background noise.'” – Clarissa

But once you tune in to the conversation, it’s really hard to tune it out again.

3) “‘You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.'” – Mirella

This explains why all the nice places look the same.

4) “Since her late teens she had been mentally dividing people into categories: either you’re a serious person, she’d long ago decided, or you’re not.”

Seriousness is not an important feature.

5) “And then there’s the part of the equation that could somehow never be mentioned at trial but that seemed extremely relevant, which is that when you’ve worked with a given group of people for a while, calling the authorities means destroying the lives of your friends.”

Typing this out made me realize why I couldn’t get into the book at all. The writing is too distracting.

6) “But up here on this higher level were people who worked in utter innocence, people whose idea of a transgression was charging dinner with friends to the corporate Amex, and he felt such longing to be one of them.”

Expensing dinner is honestly one of the most thrilling parts of a job.

7) “One of our signature flaws as a species: we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid.”

It’s not so much looking stupid as looking weak.

8) “(A difference between life with Suzanne and life with Vincent, one of many: he told Suzanne everything.)”

I couldn’t stand the unnecessary, excessive use of parentheses in this book.

9) “It wasn’t a big town but there were somehow two Marriotts, reflecting one another across the wide street and the parking lot.”

Residence Inn. IHOP. Gas station. The bedrock of America.

10) “‘When was the last time you Googled someone you trusted?'” – Saparelli

Do I trust myself?

I expected this book to be horror mystery. There were some early signs that the story would be a suspenseful thriller, but somehow it shifted to the financial crisis, and the plot completely lost steam. With such a promising setting as the eerie hotel, I don’t know why the author abandoned it and took the story to bland New York. None of the characters are likable, and the book introduces too many of them. And then there’s the wordy prose with questionable parentheses. All in all, this was the most disappointing book I’ve read in a long time.

The Paper Menagerie

The Paper Menagerie

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

I enjoyed the first and third installments of The Three Body Problem much more than the second. The only explanation I could come up with is that Ken Liu didn’t translate the second book. That said, his own Grace of Kings was a bit of a letdown.

1) “‘Your savings rate is right on target. I simply want to make sure you’re sticking to your regimen for consumption of leisure. If you oversave, you’ll later regret that you didn’t make the most of your youth. I’ve plotted the optimum amount of consumption you should engage in daily.'” – Tilly

Parts of Perfect Match are cringey, like using a thumb drive to steal data. But this story – published in 2012 – got Google and Facebook of 2020 completely right.

2) “‘So when the American soldiers began calling the people of Asia “gooks,” they didn’t understand that they were in a way really just speaking about themselves.'” – Mr. Kan

The Literomancer is full of fascinating tales of etymology. Wikipedia says ‘gook’ predates the Korean War, but I’ll believe Mr. Kan.

3) “‘For now, the red flames of revolution may be burning on the mainland, and the white frost of terror may have covered this island.'” – Mr. Kan

For better or worse, history doesn’t wait for anyone.

4) “Perhaps it is the dream of every parent to keep their child in that brief period between helpless dependence and separate selfhood, when the parent is seen as perfect, faultless.”

Having spent time with my cousin’s toddler, it’s hard to imagine him as a fully functioning adult.

5) “‘If I say “love,” I feel here.’ She pointed to her lips. ‘If I say “ai,” I feel here.’ She put her hand over her heart.”

The Paper Menagerie is not fantasy, not scifi. It’s an immigrant story.

6) “‘We could either die and let our children grow, or we could live forever and keep them always as children.” – Joao

This twist on the immortality question was brilliant. I still think that immortality is a trap. What’s the point of life if it never ends?

7) “All-Under-Heaven was thus split into the Three Kingdoms of Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei. Of the three, Cao Cao had the valor and wildness of the Northern Skies while Sun Quan had the wealth and resilience of the Southern Earth, but only Liu Bei had the virtue and love of the People.”

I was not expecting Three Kingdoms. The English translation of the novel is way too intimidating, so it’s a wonderful surprise to read a short story like this.

8) “The Tunnel ended up taking a lot of business away from surface shipping, and many Pacific ports went bust. The most famous example of this occurred in 1949, when Britain sold Hong Kong to Japan because it didn’t think the harbor city was all that important anymore.”

The social and political commentary on Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, and Asian America was really top notch throughout these stories.

9) “‘Most Brilliant and Perspicacious Magistrate, how can you say that I lie? Can you tell me the contents of this forbidden book, so that I may verify if I have read it?'” – Tian

In addition to huilijing and Three Kingdoms, even the Monkey King shows up.

10) “If you strap one of those to a rocket moving away from the Earth at a speed that’s faster than light – a detail that I’ll get to in a minute – and point the telescope back at the Earth, you’ll see the history of humanity unfold before you in reverse.”

The last story starts in 3BP-scifi style, but it unfolds into one of the best pieces of commentary on WWII and the role of history.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every story in this collection, but this book was really greater than the sum of its parts. There was a bit of everything. Robots. Spaceships. Surveillance. Immortality. The paper tiger was merely a sideshow. The most pleasant surprise was the infusion of ancient Chinese folklore that – for me – has redefined fantasy as a genre. I’m not sure where else I could read stories like these.

The Nine

The Nine

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

Whether it’s because of age, social media, or the current administration (unlikely), I’ve been paying vastly more attention to politics in the past few years. A striking realization is that I really don’t know how government works. In school, I learned ancient world history several times and spent one intense year on American history, but – in writing this – it just dawned on me that I forgot the existence of AP Gov. In high school, AP Gov was almost known as the inferior version of APUSH. In retrospect, APUSH is to AP Gov as AP Calculus is to AP Stats. You don’t need to know who the 8th president was. You don’t need to know how to take a derivative. But you do need to know how the government works and how to interpret averages.

1) The Warren Court is considered the most liberal court in American history. 

The court was responsible for Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda rights, and one man one vote.

2) Following Warren, (Warren) Burger – despite being a conservative – led a Supreme Court to a slew of liberal decisions.

The most important was Roe v. Wade in 1973, a 7-2 decision in which several judges appointed by Republican presidents voted in the majority, while the Democrat-appointed Byron White dissented. To my surprise, Roe v. Wade is based on the idea of the right to privacy. I would have filed it under equal protection of the law.

3) With the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991, 8 of 9 justices were appointed by Republican presidents.

I first learned about the Anita Hill controversy during the Kavanaugh fiasco. Two other facts that I take away about Thomas are that he almost never speaks during oral arguments and that he is against affirmative action even though he is arguably one of its most prominent beneficiaries.

4) My interpretation is that there are four main schools of thought in judicial ruling.

I’m sure this is not the real way to look at jurisprudence (is that even how you use this word?), but these concepts helped me delineate how different justices ruled. Textual: interpret the text of Constitution as is. Originalist: interpret the Constitution according to what the Founding Fathers meant. Political: rule in favor of the opinion held by the majority of Americans. Stare decisis: rule according to precedence.

5) For a case to make it to the Supreme Court, a writ of certiorari must be granted. The first part of the cert contains the questions presented.

I also gathered a loose understanding of how district and circuit courts work.

6) In 1992, Roe v Wade was upheld in Planned Parenthood v Casey in a plurality opinion written by Souter, O’Connor, and Kennedy.

The trimester test was replaced by the concept of viability and the undue burden standard.

7) Bill Clinton almost nominated Mario Cuomo to the Supreme Court, but the NY governor backed out last minute, and RBG became the nominee.

With families like Bushes, Clintons, Cuomos, it’s hard to think the game is fair.

8) Jay Sekulow emerged as a conservative voice by arguing and winning cases on the premise that religious speech is free speech.

Wow I remember reading his Rise of ISIS years ago. Of all the conservatives in this book, Sekulow is painted as the worst villain.

9) Bush v Gore was ultimately decided as a violation of the equal protection clause.

The Bush v Gore debacle takes up a good chunk of the book, for good reason. There are excruciating details, but my main conclusion is that the case truly demonstrates that the Supreme Court is just a group of humans with their own opinions. There is no right or wrong.

10) In Grutter vs Bolliger, the Court ruled 6-3 that affirmative action was allowed as long as other factors were considered.

At the same time, the Court struck down points-based affirmative action. During Grutter, the military and corporations played a large role with their amicus briefs. In particular, the military said that affirmative action was necessary.

This book was an extremely entertaining look at a cast of colorful characters who arguably are some of the most powerful Americans in history. Other than the blatant liberal leaning of the author, I couldn’t find any faults. In many ways, the Supreme Court is seen as the bastion of justice. Even if the rest of the country fell apart, the Court would save us. But that is hardly reality. The Supreme Court is just as political – in fact it is a more concentrated dose of our politics. It is at once the least democratic in its direct presidential appointments and the most democratic in its simple majority decisions. I gained a lot of respect for the Court, and I’m cautiously looking forward to the next justice handover.

The Devil’s Cup

The Devil's Cup

The Devil’s Cup by Steward Lee Allen

I love books focused on a single food item. After Milk, of course I had to do coffee. Maybe sugar next?

1) Harrar, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.

It’s hard to verify these claims. Allegedly, the Oromos from Kefa liked to eat coffee balls before battle. When they lost, they were sent as slaves to Harrar.

2) The first cup of coffee was likely kati, brewed from coffee leaves.

A related plant is qat, an addictive chew.

3) Coffee arrived in Yemen from Ethiopia at the port of al-Makkha, or Mocha.

Al-Shadhili of Mocha, a Sufi mystic, is considered the first to make coffee from beans.

4) Baba Budan brought coffee from Yemen to India.

Indian coffee is milk-based, but the author later said that Hindus believed adding milk to coffee caused leprosy?

5) Sema ceremonies feature dervishes spin dancing in white skirts.

I was confused so I googled it, and wow it is exactly what the book describes.

6) Ambergris is secreted by sperm whales and is valued for its lasting fragrance.

The Chinese translation is 龍涎香. Never heard of it.

7) Murad, a sultan in the 17th-century Ottoman Empire, banned coffee because coffee drinkers were sober and could plot against the rulers.

Murad would disguise himself, visit coffeehouses, and execute people.

8) Coffee was brought to Vienna when the Turks tried to invade Vienna but were defeated by the Poles.

The Viennese found coffee beans in bags left behind with thousands of Ottoman camels. Kolschitzky, a spy crucial to the victory, took some beans and opened the first cafe in Vienna: Blue Bottle.

9) The Viennese cappuccino (kapuziner) used milk to match the color of the brown robe of Capuchin monks.

The order was founded by Matteo da Bascio, who had started wearing a pointed cap.

10) The croissant also had an origin story stemming from the Ottoman invasion of Vienna. A baker created moon-shaped pastries after hearing sounds of the Turks digging underground tunnels.

When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI, she brought this pastry with her to France. Thus, a Continental breakfast of coffee and croissant is an ironic Turkish import.

The history of coffee is fraught with apocryphal stories, but if the legends are entertaining, what’s the harm? Without these stories, this book would have been a huge dud. If anything, the travelogue was even less believable than the coffee legends.

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

Even though I consciously try to steer away from economics books, Marginal Revolution is still one of my top book inspiration sources, especially when I can’t browse bookstores. Given the natural setup, I’ll go all out here and write a comment for each of the fifty inventions.

1) Plow – Average height decreased six inches when humans went from foraging to agriculture. I think I’ve read this before, probably in Sapiens.

2) Gramophone – The ability to record meant that the top artists became richer and everyone else lost out.

3) Barbed Wire – Apparently I didn’t know what barbed wire was. Not any old fence is barbed wire…

4) Seller Feedback – The first item sold on Ebay was a broken laser pointer.

5) Google Search - Page and Brin, while downloading the internet, used up nearly half of Stanford’s bandwidth.

6) Passports - The modern passport was born out of WWI and the League of Nations.

7) Robots - Recent robots have focused more on thinking than doing (e.g. trade stocks vs clean toilet).

8) Welfare State - Otto von Bismarck is credited with creating the modern welfare state, a populist move against the rise of Marxist ideas.

9) Infant Formula - I had only vaguely been aware of this, but Nestle marketed its formula products and trapped mothers in Africa who became dependent.

10) TV Dinners - In 2015, Americans spent more on eating out than groceries. I wonder how long it’ll take to cross this threshold again after Covid.

11) The Pill - Birth control pills were banned in Japan until 1999, four decades after the U.S.

12) Video Games - Would you choose being a Starbucks barista or a starship captain?

13) Market Research - The first market researcher was responsible for selling ads more effectively. It’s fascinating that advertising pushed into market research before any real product.

14) Air Conditioning - 1920s movie theaters were one of the first wide use cases of air conditioning, bring about the idea of the summer blockbusters.

15) Department Stores - Selfridge revolutionized department stores with by implementing open displays and providing women with a new shopping experience.

16) Dynamo - Electricity allowed factories to be flexible, whereas steam engines had to be turned on or off completely.

17) Shipping Container - The Vietnam War indirectly jumpstarted the standardization of shipping containers because it needed a way to ship supplies to Vietnam.

18) Bar Code - Joseph Woodland got the idea for bar code when pulling his fingers through sand.

19) Cold Chain - Cold chain enabled companies like United Fruit Company to take advantage of banana republics. Speaking of which, how has the clothing store not changed its name?

20) Tradable Debt and Tally Sticks - When officials decided to destroy tally sticks, they also burned down the House of Lords by accident.

21) Billy Bookcase - Billy bookcase and Bang mug are two of the most iconic Ikea products.

22) Elevator - I’ve never thought about the elevator as the greenest mode of transportation.

23) Cuneiform - Cuneiform tablets featured wedges that counted objects.

24) Public-Private Cryptography - NSA tried to stop a presentation due to national security issues. Stanford could only cover legal costs for professors, not the students.

25) Double Entry Bookkeeping - During feudal times, accounting was oral, spawning the term “auditors.”

26) Limited Liability Corporations - In contrast to free-market capitalism ideals, most Americans work in large companies where hierarchy dictates what gets done. Interesting thought.

27) Management Consulting - The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 forced investment banks to hire a third parties for their deals.

28) Intellectual Property - In 2014, Tesla opened up access to its patents. Open source as a concept is mind boggling.

29) Compiler - The term “debugging” traces back to a moth causing problems in the Harvard Mark II.

30) iPhone - Siri was acquired in 2010. To this day, I have still never used Siri.

31) Diesel Engine - Diesel is more efficient than gasoline but the engines are more expensive and it has lower RPM since it relies on compression, not a spark plug. Ok, I’m just regurgitating what it says. I don’t understand how engines work.

32) Clocks - As a predecessor of the modern time zones, railroad time was born out of a necessity to synchronize railway schedules.

33) Chemical Fertilizer - The Haber Bosch process combines nitrogen and hydrogen to make ammonia.

34) Radar - In 1956, two planes crashed over Grand Canyon due to poor air traffic control, prompting the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and the creation of the FAA.

35) Batteries - Lithioum-ion battery was only commercialized in 1991.

36) Plastic - The first plastic was Bakelite.

37) Banks - The Knights Templar operated one of the earliest forms of banking, allowing pilgrims to deposit in London and withdraw in Jerusalem.

38) Razor and Blades - Why don’t people just use electric shavers?

39) Tax Havens - If you add up the assets and liabilities of every financial center, they should add up. Good interview question to estimate size of tax havens.

40) Leaded Gasoline - I’d never heard of leaded gasoline…

41) Antibiotics and Farming - I’ve now read about the impending doom of antibiotics several times. It seems inevitable, and yet again we will do nothing about it until it’s too late.

42) M-Pesa - Is this what Venmo could have been instead of a buggy app?

43) Property Registers - Registration can turn property from asset to capital.

44) Paper - Animal skin -> cotton -> wood -> recycled paper -> pixels.

45) Index Funds - Are we approaching the singularity where everyone just trades index funds?

46) S-Bend - “To spend a penny” means to pee because it initially cost a penny to use a flushing toilet.

47) Paper Money - Jiaozi used in Sichuan is considered to be the world’s first paper money. Rulers didn’t want gold and silver coins to leak out of China given Sichuan’s location.

48) Concrete - Reinforced concrete worked because concrete and steel expand in a similar way when heated.

49) Insurance - Lloyd’s coffee house, where people gathered to bet on shipping, is the birthplace of modern insurance.

50) Lightbulb - Barring detailed methodology I’m not aware of, CPI calculation seems like a completely inaccurate way of measuring how much better life has gotten better.

This book screams coffee table material, but it turned out to be an engrossing read throughout. My only knock is the deliberate yet unnecessary attempt to shove the inventions into meaningless categories.

Between the World and Me

Between the World And Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve put off reading this book for a while, and there’s never been a better time to finally do it.

1) “Then she asked me about ‘hope.’ And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail.”

Hope is not a strategy.

2) “Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice – ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.'”

Looking back, the prevalence of child beating is seriously messed up but arguably effective.

3) “I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea why I was there.”

I knew why I was there. For the Quebec trip.

4) “What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary.”

Intention, process, result. Which one of these is most important?

5) “These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

I don’t necessarily agree with this, but it’s well written.

6) “It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”

This idea of the system really struck me with the death of Rayshard Brooks. The incident started so calmly and quickly devolved into chaos. It was a classic case of two people just trying to live their lives.

7) “And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”

If not race, some other dimension will serve as the discrimination tool. Wealth and education are obviously already long-established measuring sticks used to put others down. Sometimes I think those are just as, if not more, dangerous.

8) “The Dream seemed to be the pinnacle, then – to grow rich and live in one of those disconnected houses out in the country, in one of those small communities, one of those cul-de-sacs with its gently curving ways, where they staged teen movies and children built treehouses, and in that last lost year before college, teenagers made love in cars parked at the lake.”

This really crystallized a nebulous feeling I’ve had about the suburbs. More than anything, suburbs are defined by their avoidance of other people’s problems.

9) “At football games the other students would cheer the star black running back, and then when a black player on the other team got the ball, they’d yell, ‘Kill that nigger! Kill that nigger!'”

From my point of view, American entertainment is very disproportionately black. NBA. NFL. Music. Yet, besides the superstars, the people who make the most money from the system are not.

10) “But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved.”

I was very disappointed that this was the last message in the book. I thought the whole point was that hope was not a strategy, but the ending had me feeling like there is nothing we can do except hope for other people to change their ways.

I look forward to his son’s reply letter.

The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

A short Japanese book about math? It can’t be that bad.

1) “We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the squared root sign.”

This opening line is basically a summary of the book.

2) “‘The sum of the factors of 220 is 284, and the sum of the factors of 284 is 220. They’re called ‘amicable numbers,’ and they’re extremely rare.'” – the Professor

Not sure what the significance of amicable numbers is, but it’s a cool concept.

3) “Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid.”

There’s an order of magnitude difference in difficulty between learning everything within an existing boundary and expanding that boundary even by a little bit.

4) “‘Naturally, the sums of the divisors of numbers other than perfect numbers are either greater or less than the numbers themselves. When the sum is greater, it’s called an “abundant number,” and when it’s less, it’s a “deficient number.”‘” – the Professor

There are no abundant numbers whose sum of divisors is just 1 greater than the number itself.

5) “During the 1968 season, he set a world record with 401 strikeouts.”

Does this Enatsu world record mean anything? Is Japanese baseball apples-to-apples with MLB?

6) “‘Nut a for natu of jar a trade would dybono.'” – the Professor

I cannot unsee that Natu is tuna with reversed syllables.

7) “Math has proven the existence of God, because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.”

I still vividly remember my friend at Oxford explaining how math was the only way to find God.

8) “‘This is the fifty-eighth no-hitter…in major league history.'” – the announcer

The only baseball game I’ve ever been to was Clay Buchholz’s 10-0 no-hitter. At the time, I thought it was normal. Wow.

9) “‘That’s how we spend the summer, complaining about the heat.'” – the Professor

Spring, summer, fall.

10) “‘They made all kinds – some had real signatures by the players on them, others had holograms, and some had actual slivers from game bats embedded in them.'” – the shopkeeper

One day, my Pokemon cards will be worth more than me.

This book was way below my expectations. It felt like a mix of If Cats Disappeared from the World and Strange Weather in Tokyo.

Secondhand Time

Secondhand Time

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Back in school, I always thought history was a bug in amber. All these crazy leaders and wars were done away with, a thing of the past. Nowadays we just live normal, peaceful lives. Ignorance is bliss.

1) When Gorbachev came to power in the mid 1980s, he began liberating reforms known as perestroika and glasnost.

Gorbachev promoted openness of the markets and the government, bringing about the beginning of the end of USSR.

2) In 1991, the Gang of Eight (GKChP) staged a coup but failed as protestors and the army ultimately sided with Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

The putsch pitted communist supporters against the more liberal Gorbachev supporters. I had to fact check this a few times since the communists being the opposition went against my mental model of the Soviet Union.

3) Just two years later in 1993, Yeltsin faced off against the parliament, and this time the protestors were against Yeltsin.

The crisis led to the most deaths since the Russian Revolution and signaled growing discontent under the liberal reforms.

4) Sovok is a derogatory term used to describe supporters of the Soviet regime.

Gen Z makes fun of the boomers now, but I’m sure that very soon Gen Z will be ridiculed for its beliefs.

5) Single-family apartments built during the Khrushchev era were known as krushchevkas.

The kitchens in these apartments became part of Soviet culture. People would play loud music in the background to foil wiretapping.

6) The Soviet Union had stages of youth organizations: Little Octobrists, Young Pioneers, and Komsomol.

Many of the interviewees looked back fondly on their time as a Young Pioneer. Side note: “Little Octobrists” is a great name.

7) Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic conflict.

In a way, the Soviet Union had held everything together. We always talk about the Eastern bloc, but Central Asia is also full of former Soviet republics.

8) Russians have returned to the Orthodox Church after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Self reported numbers are tricky to interpret, but as one interviewee says in the book, people need therapists.

9) Blue jeans and salami became symbols of capitalism.

“We’d stand in line for five or six hours at a time… But you’re standing there with a book that you hadn’t been able to buy before.”

10) The Gulag Archipelago is the prominent example of samizdat.

3 volumes?

I love this style of primary source-based journalistic book. I learned a ton about the tragic decade of the 1990s for Russians. Beyond the historical facts, the personal stories were extremely engaging and sad. I have to admit that this book is likely very biased but at least it provides a deeply emotional point of view. The fall of the Soviet Union still resonates today. Having seen its demise, how can any country allow itself to fall apart? Stepping back even more, the capitalist values in vogue today are not a given. Why is it heroic to buy low and sell high?

Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Towel of Babel, of all Biblical stories, has always appealed to me. Maybe it’s the supposed link to languages, or maybe I just like skyscrapers. This book takes place at the tower, where each level is a ringdom with its own theme and cast of characters.

1) “‘What are you, an engineer? Who cares! It’s free beer.”

I liked the unique setting in each ringdom, almost like video game levels. The final boss of the Basement was a beer merry-go-round.

2) “The ringdoms of the Tower share only two things in common: the shape of their outermost walls, which are roughly circular, and the price of beef, which is outrageous. The rest is novel.”

Every chapter begins with an excerpt from Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel (and later on, Senlin’s own journal). This was a brilliant way to introduce context, intentionally misleading or not.

3) “She looked like an overfrosted cake.”

How does one look like an overfrosted cake? That said, frosting should be eliminated or kept to a bare minimum.

4) “Ever since childhood, he had been fond of kites. He liked their serenity. A kite might tug, and dive, and lunge about, but it never panicked, not even if an unexpected gust snapped the line. The person flying the kite might panic, but the kite never did.”

I haven’t flown a kite in … 15 years.

5) “‘In real life, nothing happens quickly. Everything just erodes. And it’s confusing and frustrating and dull. God, can it be dull.'” – Edith

When I watch the news or even Youtube videos, sometimes I wonder why nothing seems to happen in my life. What’s worth of daily Vines?

6) “‘The Tower is only as tall as the man that climbs it.'” – Tarrou

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

7) “Wholesomeness is less a positive force than the resistance of a negative quality.”

Suddenly I realized I didn’t know the definition of wholesome.

8) “‘Often the most difficult part of painting someone is convincing them that they look like their portrait.'” – Ogier

You look like your portrait. You sound like your recording. You smell like ?

9) “The oaf processed the line of women as if they were livestock in a market. He felt their necks for plague lumps, checked their arms for the telltale brand of the Parlor, and rubbed his grimy finger along their teeth.”

We’re slowly getting there.

10) “The crew doesn’t want to hear that the captain has doubts or that the captain’s plan is full of holes.”

Overly optimistic leaders might seem delusional, but the truth is that no one wants a pessimistic leader.

This book was a pleasant surprise. Indie books are somewhat risky, but the ratings were spot on in this case. I was most impressed by the world building, as I felt immersed in the Tower throughout. In the Q&A, I learned that the author was inspired by Invisible Cities. I think there’s a solid chance this series jumps on screen.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Since the pandemic started, the wait times for library ebooks have skyrocketed. In the meantime, Agatha Christie books are great fillers.

1) “Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, ‘gossip.'”

This story takes place in the quintessential English village, where everyone tells everyone everything.

2) “Miss Russell’s account of vague pains was so unconvincing that with a woman of less integrity of character I should have suspected a trumped-up tale.”

I didn’t know “trump” had this poetic meaning.

3) “‘Just nine o’clock. I heard it chime the hour as I was turning out of the gate.'” – James Sheppard

One of the more intriguing aspects of old mysteries is the lack of technology and digital surveillance.

4) “King’s Abbot is a mere village, but its station happens to be an important junction. Most of the big expresses stop there, and trains are shunted, re-sorted, and made up.”

For some reason, this sentence triggered memories of my rainy day trip to Wales.

5) “‘Fiddlesticks! No more bad knee than you and I.'” – Caroline

Fiddlesticks! Another Fiddlesticks.

6) “‘Each one of you has something to hide.'” – Poirot

Good summary of every Agatha Christie book I’ve read.

7) “‘I thought, doctor, that you might put it to M. Poirot – explain it, you know – because it’s so difficult for a foreigner to see our point of view. And you don’t know – nobody could know – what I’ve had to contend with.'” – Mrs. Ackroyd

Mrs. Karen Ackroyd.

8) “For some five minutes there was complete silence, owing to the fact that there is tremendous secret competition amongst us as to who can build their wall quickest.”

Yes, the unspoken rule of Mahjong is that slow wall-building is shameful. But five minutes? Y’all are slow.

9) “I had read of there being such a thing as The Perfect Winning – going Mah Jong on one’s original hand. I had never hoped to hold the hand myself.”

One day, I too will get a Tin Wu.

10) “‘He’s got a bee in his bonnet about the man Kent, but who knows – there may be something useful behind it.'” – Inspector Raglan

“Bee in your bonnet” and “Bob’s your uncle” are my favorite British idioms.

I found this one a bit lackluster compared to And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express – until the very end.

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I remember reading a short story by Vonnegut in 9th grade. Maybe Slaughterhouse-Five was banned, but back then I just read whatever came our way and didn’t even know of the book’s existence. Given the other controversial books that we did read, I’d guess that we just didn’t get to it.

1) “We were connected to the institutions that supported us by means of pneumatic tubes which ran under the streets of Chicago.”

Wow I thought these tube systems were science fiction. The future floppy disks and USB drives.

2) “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

I can’t quite conceptualize what this entails, but I nodded.

3) “He said that the Americans had no choice but to keep fighting in Vietnam until they achieved victory or until the Communists realized that they could not force their way of life on weak countries.”

The subtle irony is brilliant.

4) “‘You think this is bad? This ain’t bad.'” – the hobo

Somewhere in America, 2020.

5) “‘Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided.'” – a Tralfamadorian

The Dow drops 2% because x said y.

6) “‘You know – we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. “My God, my god -” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.”‘” – Derby

The interwebs say the average age was 26 or younger.

7) “It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.”

Wow this idea has really solidified in my mind over the past two years. America is a great place if you want to make it. But if you don’t succeed, no one will catch you on the way down. It’s too bad that you failed, but it’s your own fault. Prayers and good thoughts.

8) “So Billy made a lollipop for him. He opened the window. He stuck the lollipop into poor old Derby’s gaping mouth. A moment passed, and then Derby burst into tears. Billy closed the window and hid the sticky spoon.”

This was the most emotional moment of the war.

9) “Later on in life, the Tralfamadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones – to stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by.”

One of the best parts of growing older is that you turn bad memories into good ones and laugh.

10) “The window reflected the news. It was about power and sports and anger and death. So it goes.”

Sports are the only non-toxic part of news. Now that there are no sports, everyone should stop close their CNN tabs.

It’s perhaps lazy, but I can’t help comparing this book to Catch-22. While the latter was much more entertaining, I still enjoyed Slaughterhouse-five.

The Lady Tasting Tea

The Lady Tasting Tea

The Lady Tasting Tea by David Salsburg

This is a super niche book for statistics nerds, all the more so because it’s not even technical. Rather, it’s about the people behind all the theorems and proofs – the Pythagorases of 20th century statistics.

1) Karl Pearson’s key contribution is the idea that math doesn’t have to be deterministic. Instead of one true “thing,” there exists a distribution defined by parameters.

AP Stats is lowkey the most important class of the 21st century. That said, AP Stats and college stats are not at all the same thing.

2) Gosset, publishing under the pen name of Student, worked at Guinness.

Good quality beer calls for good statistical distributions.

3) Ronald Fisher, who would surpass Pearson in his contributions to the field of statistics, suffered from visual impairment, which enabled him to develop strong geometric reasoning.

One day, I hope we have VR education. I’d be able to ask any question I want whenever I want and step into a 3D interactive explanation. Knowledge sharing is just too inefficient.

4) Fisher was a proponent of eugenics and later on would dismiss claims that smoking caused cancer.

The author painted an overall positive portrait of Fisher, but I’m sure he would not have been fun to work with.

5) LD-50 is defined as the dose required to kill 50% of the population.

LD-50 served as the parameter in Bliss’s probit model.

6) Fisher did not believe that a failure to find significance meant the hypothesis was true.

The meat of this book was the exploration of competing interpretations of the significance test between Fisher and Neyman-Pearson (Karl Pearson’s son). Fisher believed that an insignificant p-value simply meant we had to conduct another test.

7) Neyman-Pearson takes the frequentist definition and says that the significance test must pit a null hypothesis against an alternative hypothesis.

This is the widely accepted interpretation of significance testing now. It’s interesting to consider how it’s not necessarily the “correct” interpretation. With all the p-hacking going on, it’s clear that there are problems with how practitioners take the methodology for granted.

8) In the Serene Republic of Venice, the head of state doge was elected via a randomly selected set of lectors.

This story is hard to believe, but it’s good enough for me that the Doge of Venice is real.

9) Case control, prospective cohort, and retrospective cohort are three types of cohort study.

Observational studies are hard. Being able to run an experiment is a luxury.

10) “‘It seems to me that one of statistician’s jobs is to look at figures, to query why they look like they do…. I am being very simpleminded tonight, but I think it is our job to suggest that figures are interesting – and, if the person to whom we say this looks bored, then we have either put it across badly or the figures are not interesting. I suggest that my statistics in the Home Office are not boring.'” – Stella Cuncliffe

I wholeheartedly agree. One picture is worth a thousand words. A table or chart should be worth at least that.

As a behind-the-scenes addendum to a supposedly dry subject, this book was very easy to read and digestible. I don’t think I’ll remember many details of who discovered what and who didn’t like whom, but the core idea that statistics is a relatively nascent and ever evolving field definitely resonated. Fast forwarding to the present, machine learning and large-scale online experimentation are very much the next step in the statistics evolution.

Golden Gates

Golden Gates

Golden Gates by Conor Dougherty

This book seemed like targeted clickbait. San Francisco. Housing. Journalist. I willingly fell for it, and I made the right decision.

1) SF BAAR changed its name to SF BARF.

Throughout this book, I was shocked by how I’ve been completely oblivious to local politics.

2) During WWII, the US and Mexico struck a deal to create the bracero temporary work program.

Mexicans were brought over to work on American farms. This program was even extended after the war.

3) In 1947, Levitt & Sons built one of the first large scale suburbs near New York City.

Weirdly this is two books in a row that have mentioned Levittown. It was very transparently for whites only.

4) The Embarcadero Freeway would have been built right next to the Ferry Building.

Pat Brown is known as the governor who built California. It’s shocking to see where this highway would have been. The Embarcadero is an amazing piece of prime real estate that we don’t deserve.

5) House prices started skyrocketing in the 1970s as inflation raised prices everywhere.

I had never thought of fixed-rate mortgages as hedges against inflation – probably because we’ve had super low inflation for the last 10 years.

6) In 1978, Prop 13 reset property taxes to 1976 levels and capped increases at 2% a year.

Despite constantly hearing about Prop 13, I actually didn’t really know what it was until now. Ignorance is bliss.

7) Contract cities typically outsource everything except for planning.

The incentive to become a city is to be able to control who can come in. Lakewood, the Levittown of Los Angeles, became the first contract city.

8) The pro-build contingent is split into two broad factions: the “trickle-down” build-market-rate-housing group and the affordable housing group.

Like the book mentioned, it’s tough to map these groups to local SF politics because everyone is “progressive.” We also have a reality in which NIMBYs and affordable housing supporters team up against the YIMBYs.

9) New efficient ways of building housing are susceptible to downturns due to the need for capital investments.

People always ask why construction is still so inefficient, and I had never considered this angle before. Using contractors has the benefit of flexibility and lower risk.

10) Scott Wiener is an ex-SF supervisor who is now a CA state senator and introduced SB 827 (and subsequently SB 50).

I’ll hold myself accountable to stop being an uninformed voter.

This book really captures the zeitgeist of 2020 SF. I learned a ton about the history and the current happenings of housing. Yes, SF is a uniquely beautiful city with stunning views, especially once you get out of SOMA. But as a renter, it’s hard not to consider building more housing a no-brainer, and I really don’t understand the vitriol against tall buildings. That said, if you ask me whether we should build market rate or affordable housing, I’m not sure. The cop-out answer is why not both. I can’t be NIMBY or YIMBY if I don’t have a backyard. #galaxybrain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

I didn’t judge this book by its cover, but I noticed it because of its cover. Even though I have zero interest in comic books or escape artists, I decided to give this highly-rated Pulitzer winner a try.

1) “‘Never worry about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxieties for what you are escaping to.'” – Kornblum

Grass is greener. In reality, you recalibrate your expectations and start looking for new grass again.

2) “Feet, notoriously difficult to draw in realistic depth, all but disappeared from the panels, and noses were reduced to the simplest variations on the twenty-second letter of the alphabet.”

Aren’t the 21st and the 23rd both more accurate than the 22nd?

3) “‘Yeah, you’re in America now. We chew a lot of gum here.'” – Sammy

Looking back, it’s ridiculous how gum chewing was such a big “cool” thing in high school. Is it a teenager thing? Does anyone chew gum anymore?

4) “So that their products might qualify as magazines, and therefore be mailed second class, comic book publishers made sure to toss in the minimum two pages of pure text required by postal law – usually in the form of a featherweight short story, written in sawdust prose.”

I didn’t fact check, but TIL.

5) “‘You can’t negotiate for me, Mr. Clay. I’m management.'” – Deasey

I really enjoyed this book’s commentary on making it big in America.

6) “Month after month, the Escapist ground the armies of evil into paste, and yet here they were in the spring of 1941 and Adolf Hitler’s empire was more extensive than Bonaparte’s.”

The WWII backdrop kept the story moving. I’m sure I had learned in school at some point, but I had forgotten that America had held out on the war for as long as possible. 80 years later, we’re still late and reactive to global catastrophes.

7) “One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing.”

It’s nice to hear people say this is the golden age of TV, if only for the fact that people recognize the past isn’t always better.

8) “The sun disappeared, and you could not leave the tunnels, and everything and everyone you loved was ten thousand miles away.”

BRB, reconsidering Antarctica trip.

9) “The entire airplane had a pied appearance, reddish-brown blotches of seal stitched against a background of silver-gray, as if it had been splashed with blood.”

I don’t understand why they wrapped the airplane in seal and dog skin.

10) “‘You can’t walk me to school. Mom, you can’t possibly. I would die. I would absolutely die.'” – Tommy

I remember when it was shameful to get dropped off at school. O high school.

This book was an epic. It had a secret escapist society, a moth lady comic character, a gay romance, an underground shelter in Antarctica, a congressional hearing, and much more. All of this took place with a backdrop of WWII and the pursuit of the American Dream. Even the writing style was epic, with sentences that regularly each took up half of the Kindle screen and many words that I’d never seen before. My main gripe was that the author often used brand names to represent objects. I guess now I know a few brands of cigarettes.

Human Acts

Human Acts

Human Acts by Han Kang

Given my penchant for translated contemporary Asian fiction, I’ve wanted to read Han Kang for a while but have been deterred by the mediocre reviews. So I ended up picking Human Acts instead. I’d never heard of the Gwangju democracy protests before. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since the 1960s – 1990s is the biggest gap in my history knowledge, and discussions of Korea are almost completely dominated on the negative end by North Korea and on the positive end by the latest Kdrama.

1) “Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.”

Or you could make up your own song.

2) “‘The world’s changed since they assassinated President Park. The labor movement’s gathering strength, and now our bosses can’t force us to work overtime anymore. They’re saying our salaries will go up, too. This could be a great opportunity for me, I need to take advantage of it.'” – Jeong-mi

It’s becoming increasingly clear that labor has become weaker and weaker, at least in America.

3) “‘Perhaps, once Jeong-dae’s gone to university, I might even be able to follow in his footsteps. University. It’s possible, if I study hard enough.'” – Jeong-mi

Older sibling sacrifices.

4) “Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.”

The author’s descriptions of dead bodies are probably the best I’ve seen.

5) “Now begins the process of forgetting the seven slaps. One per day, then it’ll be over and done within a week. Today, then, is that first day.”

Every chapter is set up so well.

6) “It wasn’t so much eating meat that Eun-sook disliked; what really turned her stomach was watching it cook on the hot plate. When the blood and juices rose to the surface, she had to look away.”

What? That’s the best part.

7) “It was a perfectly ordinary pen, a black Monami Biro. They spread my fingers, twisted them one over the other, and jammed the pen between them.”

I really like how the author starts with one vivid image and zooms out to the bigger story.

8) “The chief kept emphasizing that our aim was only to hold out until dawn, when hundreds of thousands of Gwangju’s citizens would stream out into the streets and mass around the fountain.”

It makes no sense, but hindsight is 2020.

9) “Like those times during a primary school dodgeball game when, having nimbly avoided danger thus far, there was no one but you left standing on your team and you had to face up to the challenge of catching the ball.”

Dodgeball games perfectly summarize my philosophy. I don’t hit you. You don’t hit me. And thus, I was always the last person standing in middle school bombardment.

10) “‘I don’t like summer but I like summer nights': that was something you came out with the year you turned eight.”

The downside of nice weather in SF is that summer nights don’t exist.

This was my favorite book in a long time. The characters are very strong, and I like books set up as a series of interconnected short stories, similar to The Overstory before it became an entangled mess. Every chapter was a mini mystery, and the author brings the reader along until we get back to one fateful day in 1980.

Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

I typically wouldn’t read back to back medical nonfiction, especially since I hadn’t been particularly interested in the topic of sleep. However, the book club at work picked this book, so I obliged. Reading this mostly at night before going to bed was a particularly ironic experience, as the author repeatedly hammered home that a lack of sleep would kill you. For what it’s worth, one silver lining of sheltering in place at home is that I sleep earlier now.

1) Body temperature peaks in late afternoon and is lowest overnight.

This explains why 6pm is always a scary time when I’m sick.

2) Jetlag hits harder when traveling east because it requires sleeping earlier, against a circadian rhythm that’s typically longer than a day.

I have trouble thinking through this east/west travel logic. If you’re going +-12 hours but the flight take 16 hours, are you really sleeping “earlier”? What if you sleep on the plane? Doesn’t it also depend a ton on what time of day you fly? Anyway, on my last two trips to Asia, I’ve had 0 jetlag after getting there and severe jetlag after getting back. I had never experienced this level of jetlag before when I lived on the east coast. It feels like a +- 12hr difference is way better for jetlag than +9/-15, or maybe I’m just getting old.

3) Caffeine works by binding to adenosine receptors. Adenosine normally induces sleep, so when caffeine takes its place, we have less of an urge to sleep.

Caffeine doesn’t seem to work on me, but maybe I’ve just accepted my current state as the norm.

4) The thalamus acts as the brain’s sensory gate. For us to fall asleep, it must block all sensory input from getting to the cortex.

My favorite parts of the book were the neuroscience sections – brings me back to 9.01.

5) Sleep comes in 90-minute cycles. Early in the night, the cycles are mostly made of NREM sleep. As the night goes on, REM sleep makes up more and more of each cycle.

This means that REM sleep is concentrated in the latter half of the night. In turn, getting a short night of sleep disproportionately results in less REM sleep.

6) NREM sleep is characterized by long, rhythmic waves punctuated with sleep spindles.

Sleep spindles still seem like a mystery, but we know they help turn short term memory into long term memory.

7) REM sleep seems to disappear in the ocean.

Seals get much more REM sleep on land than in the sea. Other animal anomalies include sleeping with half their brain. Birds flying in formation would even  sleep with the proper half of the brain depending on their position in the formation.

8) Normally, our bodies are paralyzed during REM sleep so we don’t “act out” our dreams.

However, babies in utero haven’t completely developed this ability, so they often punch and kick.

9) A lack of sleep can lead to an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which then leads to a wide range of harmful effects.

Keep calm and carry on.

10) People who live on the west side of a timezone get more sunlight later in the day than people who live on the east side, but everyone wakes up at the same time. Therefore, west dwellers get less sleep.

This is regression discontinuity asking to be analyzed.

I really liked the first half of this book. It took me back to the days of learning biology, which I still believe is the easiest school subject because it all boils down to 1) memorization and 2) failing that, an assumption that the organism will try its best to live (and everything is then derived from this assumption). Unfortunately, the second half of the book was almost unbearable. It was largely a list of questionable, non-causal studies with which the author tried to argue his conclusions. Even the small number of experiments that did measure causal effect made me uneasy, as they typically forced sleep deprivation on participants. Despite these shortcomings, this book convinced me that I should sleep more and will probably become one of the most useful book I’ve read.

 

The Plague

The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus

In the same Eslite where I saw a bunch of Keigo Higashino books, I also found The Plague on a special coronavirus table setup. It reminded me to read a French book again. However, three pages in, I knew I had no chance. I had to look up every other word, and I couldn’t even construct the sentences afterwards. I decided to cut my losses and switch to the English version. It quickly became clear why I had struggled so much. Even in English, I looked a word up every five pages.

1) “Actually the municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all, but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation.”

The main takeaway from this book is that we’ve seen this all before, and nothing has changed.

2) “‘When crossing a a street, he steps off the sidewalk without changing his pace, but two out of three times makes a little hop when he steps on to the sidewalk on the other side. He is absentminded and, when driving his car, often leaves his side-signals on after he has turned a corner.'” – Tarrou

What a mundane yet vivid description.

3) “‘I, too, believe in calling things by their name. But what’s the name in this case?'” – Grand

And here we are, again, arguing over what to call the virus.

4) “Richard pointed out that this justified a policy of wait-and-see; anyhow, it would be wise to await the statistical report on the series of analyses that had been going on for several days.”

One silver lining of the coronavirus is that it has made models mainstream. In particular, the situation has clearly demonstrated how uncertain yet effective models are. Tying this back to work, it’s important to repeatedly communicate this fact about models. Relatedly, checking coronavirus numbers is like checking experiment results. Every day, you get closer to the truth, but you have to continuously weigh the pros and cons of making a decision.

5) “Even the small satisfaction of writing letters was denied us. It came to this: not only had the town ceased to be in touch with the rest of the world by normal means of communication, but also, according to a second notification, all correspondence was forbidden, to obviate the risk of letters carrying infection outside the town.”

We’re lucky to have the internet now. Had SARS broken out to this level back in 2003, communication would have been so much tougher. That said, if this ever happens again, I’m sure we’ll look back on 2020 and think that we had primitive technology. Sidebar: why is video chat quality still so horrible?

6) “Also, no one in the town had any idea of the average weekly death-rate in ordinary times.”

A few week ago, I was wondering if xxx coronavirus deaths would even show up in the topline numbers, and I realized I had no idea how many people died on a given day.

7) “Naturally the picture-house benefited by the situation and made money hand over fist.”

The biggest difference between then and now was that theaters and restaurants were still open in Oran. This doesn’t make a ton of sense. They didn’t want to send letters in fear that the letters would spread the disease, but somehow going out was fine? Googling tells me bubonic plague was spread by flea bites.

8) “‘However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.'” – Rieux

I’ve never been one to label people heroes. Maybe heroism should be the baseline, in which case heroic acts are just a form of common decency.

9) “Whenever any of them spoke through the mask, the muslin bulged and grew moist over the lips. This gave a sort of unreality to the conversation.”

Trying to understand muffled Mandarin through a mask was a challenge, but speaking through a mask actually made me feel less self conscious about my Mandarin.

10) “Our strategy had not changed, but whereas yesterday it had obviously failed, today it seemed triumphant.”

This is how it will all end.

I’m glad I read this book now. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have resonated at all and would have been tough to get through. There were a lot of similar characters to keep straight. The second third of the book in particular was very philosophical and slow. I’ll give Camus the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s an intentional reflection of the drawn out days of the plague.

Ask Again, Yes

Ask Again, Yes

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Suddenly, I’m in two book clubs at work. They’re both very small but great ways to discover books I normally wouldn’t read. With the quarantine at full force, I’ve noticed a huge jump in elibrary hold times. There are routinely more than a hundred people waiting for books now. I’d love to see an analysis of ebook demand since the coronavirus started. Maybe I’ll just do it myself if I could get the data somehow. I’ll say it again, libraries are incredible. It’s almost unthinkable what you can get for free (or with your sunk cost taxes). Anyway, with the surge in demand, this book wasn’t available in ebook format, so I had to resort to audiobook. Since I didn’t take any notes, I won’t do the normal ten quotes. Instead, I’ll talk about some pros and cons of audiobooks.

I liked being able to “read” even when I was tired and wanted to close my eyes. I also found it to be much more engaging than my podcast listening. On an average podcast, I’m paying attention but barely retaining anything. Somehow, knowing that it’s a book, I really focused on every word. That said, the narration was mildly unsettling. It was weird to listen to one narrator using different voices for different characters, and it was very difficult to keep track of the character names in the beginning. Another difference between ebooks and audiobooks was that I could see on the app beforehand the duration of each chapter. With ebooks, I’d intermittently check what % progress I’m at, but this number doesn’t really give me a sense of how much longer the book would take since some books are way denser than others. The % progress number can also be thrown off by a huge appendix or bibliography. At first, I was shocked by how long the audiobook would take. Most chapters were 30 minutes+, and the book had 20 chapters. In retrospect though, that’s about 10 hours. I doubt I could have finished the ebook in less than 10 hours given how slow I typically read. That said, 10 hours was sticker shock, so I tried to speed up the audio. I ended up settling for 1.25x since 1.5x was way too fast for comprehension, even though I can usually watch Youtube videos at 1.5x. I suspect that visuals really help. Speaking of visuals, the most surprising part of the audiobook experience was that I had much more vivid visual images of the characters and settings in my head compared to reading an ebook. With my eyes closed for most of the audiobook, I had room in my mind to conjure up my version of the plot as if I were watching a TV show.

All in all, this book took me back to growing up in suburbia. The story really struck me as American, both the good and bad. I was lukewarm on most of the characters, but I think it’s because they were all so real with human flaws. Without a doubt, the audiobook format shaped a lot of how I felt about the book. Going forward, I’d still rather read than listen to books. If this quarantine keeps up though, I might not have a choice.

The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Walking through Eslite in Taiwan, I saw several books by 東野 圭吾 on the bestsellers shelf. I looked him up, and it turned out to be Keigo Higashino, the author of one of my favorite books in the last few years: Under the Midnight Sun. I’m not sure why he had three or four books in the Eslite top 10. Maybe a bunch of his books just got translated. Anyway, it inspired me to read more of his stuff.

1) “Before her current job, Yasuko had worked in a nightclub in Kinshicho.”

TBT to staying at the Moxy Kinshicho and watching people go in and out of the club across the street.

2) “‘It’s not real mathematics if you have to use a computer to verify it.'” – Ishigami

Probability questions are too hard. It’s easier to write a simulation.

3) “Sometimes, you could follow a mistaken route to a false treasure, and proving that it was false could be even harder than finding the real answer.”

The growing interplay between mathematics and the murder case throughout the book was enjoyable to read.

4) “‘I’m sure they do. But that isn’t true for the support team for those racers. They run detailed simulations over and over to find the best places to accelerate – that’s how they work out a strategy.'” – Ishigami

NASCAR has never made sense to me. What is the strategy? Why are some racers better than others? I’m sure some people think the same of tennis.

5) “A feeling rose inside him, making him queasy, as though an elaborate formula he’d thought was perfect was now giving false results because of an unpredictable variable.”

TFW your queries have been running fine for a week and suddenly the results don’t make sense.

6) “‘Once you get used to luxury, it’s hard to lower your sights. The Ginza crowd wouldn’t be caught dead in a place this seedy, hards time or no.'” – Kusanagi

Once you go biz, you can’t go back (to economy).

7) “‘Murder isn’t the most logical way to escape a difficult situation. It only leads to a different difficult situation.'” – Yukawa

Are murders logical?

8) “‘I want you to turn your papers over and write down what you’re thinking right now on the backs.'” – Ishigami

Unfortunately, this did not happen during my 8.01 final.

9) “He’d had plenty of time to consider the homeless who lived there and their lives. Why were they living at all? Were they just killing time, waiting there for the day when they would eventually die?”

The way that the homeless served as a cog in the murder was a bit cringe.

10) “‘Take this, but don’t let it be a burden. This is just a present. If you should decide you would like to live with me, then the ring will mean what it is intended to mean.'” – Kudo

The ultimate application of nudging.

Before reading the book, the title had seemed weird, but this story really is about the devotion of the suspect. Although the initial murder was no mystery, the plot twist at the end was a pleasant surprise. Keigo Higashino is fast becoming my favorite Japanese author.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I read this for my first ever book club at work. I was glad I finally had an extra reason to pick this up since I had been eyeing it for years but the book never made it to the top of my list. The book club discussion afterwards definitely added to my overall experience. I was able to point things out to other people and learned some things that I had missed – like the fact that the underground railroad didn’t actually physically exist. I knew this in the back of my mind from my years of American history classes but somehow never mentally processed the metaphor in the book.

1) “What did you get for that, for knowing the day you were born into the white man’s world? It didn’t seem like the thing to remember. More like to forget.”

Birthday celebrations have always struck me as opportunistic capitalism. A lot of older people don’t even know when they were born.

2) “Take it out on each other if you cannot take it out on the ones who deserve it.”

For me, the overwhelming theme of the book was how people at the bottom of the ladder would kick down the ones below them, instead of fighting against those above. Because of this, I surprisingly associate this story much with Parasite.

3) “‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.'” – Lumbly

What rails? To be fair, I did look into taking a train vacation.

4) “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.”

Never assume that things are how they are because they should be that way.

5) “Like a railroad, the museum permitted them to see the rest of the country beyond their small experience, from Florida to Maine to the western frontier.”

The older I get, the more I feel that museum-going is completely backwards. You should go to museums at home, not when you’re traveling.

6) “Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

Everyone has to shit. Everyone will die. We are all humans.

7) “In North Carolina, the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.”

According to the book, race laws were very different across states. I never learned about this in school – is it true?

8) “‘I don’t get where it says, He that stealeth a man and sells him, shall be put to death…. But then later it says, Slaves should be submissive to their masters in everything – and be well-pleasing.'” – Cora

The beauty of computer code is that it has one true interpretation.

9) “‘It means taking what is yours, your property, whatever you deem it to be. And everyone else taking their assigned places to allow you to take it. Whether it’s red men or Africans, giving up themselves, giving of themselves, so that we can have what’s rightfully ours. The French setting aside their territorial claims. The British and the Spanish slinking away.'” – Ridgeway

The innate belief to do whatever you want is the best and worst of America.

10) “The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

Here I am, dealing with first world problems when I can’t find a free ebook online.

The Underground Railroad was an enjoyable, quick read. The author’s writing style is quite unique and memorable. In particular, he tends to build up to an event and then abruptly come to a conclusion in one sentence.

The Body

The Body

The Body by Bill Bryson

I was inspired to read this after having been sick for what seemed like half of last year. Then I saw his Notes from a Small Island and thought it would be a good opportunity to knock out my book for England. Unfortunately, I had to stop after two chapters. I didn’t like his writing style, and the book was more geared towards people already familiar with the English ways, not those trying to learn more. So in the end, I went back to The Body, which sadly read like a biology textbook for elementary schoolers.

1) Humans don’t have wetness receptors, which explains why sometimes it’s hard to tell if something is wet or just cold.

Or maybe we haven’t found them yet?

2) The average adult touches his/her face 16 times an hour.

Even before coronavirus hit, I had made it a 2020 resolution to stop touching my face. Some people say masks are useless, but I think just the fact that I can’t touch my face makes them useful.

3) Penicillin was discovered when spores of mold came through the window and landed on a petri dish at St Mary’s Hospital in London.

Alexander Fleming was on holiday and thus there was enough time for penicillin to act. The WW2 follow up to this penicillin story involved a cantaloupe.

4) In a phenomenon known as blue sky sprites, you can sometimes see your own white blood cells moving through a capillary in front of the retina.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this, but I also rarely ever look directly at a blue sky. It’s either too sunny or not blue.

5) A Tokyo chemist named Ikeda tried to replicate the flavor of dashi using glutamate.

He founded Ajinomoto, which produces a third of the world’s MSG.

6) Heart attack is not the same as cardiac arrest.

Heart attack is when oxygenated blood can’t get to heart muscle due to an artery blockage. Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping.

7) When George Washington got a throat infection, 40% of his blood was bled out, and he died shortly afterwards.

Having read about radical mastectomy and now bleeding, I wonder what medical practice today will be considered outrageous in the future.

8) The mneumoic for spleen is 1,3,5,7,9,11 – referring to the spleen being 1x3x5in in size, 7oz in weight, and lying between the 9th and 11th ribs.

I have to confirm with my med school friends.

9) Jeremy Morris studied the effects of walking by comparing drivers and conductors on double decker buses.

It’s always a delight to read about smart ways of finding control and treatment groups.

10) Condensation is partially responsible for runny noses in cold weather.

The warm air from our lungs meets the cold air from outside and turns into drip.

It’s remarkable how little we know about our bodies. Often times, we figure something out, only to have it proven wrong later. There is always a study out there for you to cite, no matter what your hypothesis is. The default response from doctors is to drink more water and sleep more. It’s no wonder that this pandemic has caused hysteria. You most fear what you don’t know.

 

Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

I was considering reading a murder mystery and found this book a couple pages down on the Amazon best-selling list. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it given the media I consume. Speaking of which, I was a bit hesitant to read this book because news these days are already too much to handle, and I wasn’t sure I needed to further immerse myself in this fiasco. That said, I appreciate journalist books since they typically write well and are knowledgeable about their topics. This one got very repetitive but it’s a story that needs to be told.

1) Ronan Farrow is the son of Woody Allen, who married his wife’s adopted daughter.

Frank Sinatra is also potentially involved. What is happening?

2) American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, has deep ties with Weinstein and – yes – Trump.

I’d only first heard about the National Enquirer with the recent Bezos story. How is everyone and everything connected?

3) Seth Freedman was a spy who claimed to be a Guardian journalist and tried to get information about Rose McGowan’s book. 

Farrow incorporated some mystery elements into the book by leaving clues about spies. Most were quite obvious. He’s no Agatha Christie, but the suspense was appreciated.

4) Ambra Gutierrez secretly recorded Weinstein and got evidence of him admitting.

This is the clip that I’d heard on the Daily. It’s weird to piece things together.

5) Weinstein said to Andy Lack, “It was the nineties, Andy. We all did that.”

Sometimes I wonder what we consider normal now that will be frowned upon in the future. Meat-eating seems like a (USDA-)prime candidate.

6) Ken Auletta had tried to expose Weinsteins many years earlier but didn’t have enough evidence.

Repeated ad nauseam was the fact that everyone had known this was going on but said nothing about it.

7) Asia Argento, who accused Weinstein, is accused of sexual assault herself. 

In another everyone-knows-everyone moment, I realized I recognized the name because she dated Anthony Bourdain.

8) Weinstein hired Black Cube to spy on his accusers, including planting someone close to Rose McGowan.

It’s just like the movies.

9) NBC did not want to publish the Weinstein story, so Farrow ultimately took his story to the New Yorker.

The best part of this book was the internal affairs at NBC. I’ve always marveled at how much power institutions wield. Institutions are just run by people. Why do some people get a bigger say than other people?

10) Matt Lauer, of the Today show, was accused on sexual assault.

It was shocking to read about what happened at the Sochi Olympics.

In many ways, this book made me lose faith in humanity, or at least in every famous person. The silver lining is that things have – at least partially – come to the surface. Or perhaps this is merely what Ronan Farrow wants his book to convey. Reading nonfiction like this makes me wonder why my world is so boring. Maybe boring is best.

 

The Stolen Bicycle

The Stolen Bicycle

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming Yi

I’ve been passively trying to find a good Taiwan book for years and recently became more proactive in preparation for the upcoming trip back. I’ve always said Taiwan is like Japan with Chinese people. Whether or not that’s fair, this book made me realize how much modern Taiwanese history is shaped by years of Japanese occupation.

1) “Nobody knew how my father really felt about this episode, because he never expressed any opinion, just like he never commented on current events when he read the paper, never shared his memories and never chimed in when my mother shared hers.”

Why are 90% of Asian dads like this? And why am I likely to become one of them?

2) “For the first two days of my fever, my parents didn’t take me to the doctor, because it was simply too expensive.”

40 years later, in one of the richest cities in the richest country, I do the same.

3) “Pa would give the spring on the kickstand a kick – boing – then another kick, and it was up, the heavy iron horse ready to go.”

Kicking the kickstand is one of the most satisfying feelings.

4) “I read the email twice and sat there staring at the screen, upon which some nameless insect settled, like a comma.”

This one line convinced that they will turn this book into a movie at some point.

5) “Once essential to daily life, these bikes have again become status symbols, a way for folks to flaunt their style. The people who bid on these bikes aren’t fanatics. They’re just rich.”

The lesson is to hoard and not throw anything away. Everything will come back into fashion.

6) “Chary of the rubber barons, whose fabulous wealth made each a lord in his own demesne, the British did not dare to demolish the plantations to build defensive fortifications. As a result, the jungle, which should have slowed the Japanese advance, was full of holes.”

In retrospect, this book somehow crafted an intricate story that linked WWII with bikes, butterfly collages, and elephants.

7) “When I woke up, K’nyaw’s body was covered in peanut-sized ants, palm-sized beetles and snot-like leeches. While the rain thundered outside the hole in the tree, I could almost hear the beetles gnawing on K’nyaw’s flesh.”

Out of all the subplots, I liked the jungle one the most.

8) “Little Hsia once told me that the whole process of finding an antique bicycle somewhere in the street, asking after the owner, locating him, waiting until he was willing to meet with you, listening to the story of him and the bike, finally persuading him to let you have it, inspecting it, seeing what parts are replaced, damaged or missing, locating replacements and finally mounting them is the source of his obsession.”

Sometimes it’s more fun to do things the hard way. What have we lost with the one-click buy button?

9) “The hide was slightly shrunken and shrivelled from the tanning and freezing, so that the personnel had to keep whittling the body and stretching the skin until it fit every part like a glove.”

This eerily reminded me of my latest dumpling-making session.

10) “When I asked her where my uncles’ sons had all ended up, she gave me an account from her sickbed. My eldest uncle’s two sons were abroad. Second uncle didn’t have any sons. Third Uncle and his whole family had emigrated to Canada. Fourth Uncle had been bedridden with kidney disease for years. Fifth Uncle was killed in an accident several years ago. His son was willing to affix his name chop, but was unwilling to help.”

Asian dramas are Asian dramas, but they are grounded in some truth.

I’m unsure how I feel about this book. Overall I definitely enjoyed it, but I was thrown off by whether various events were fictional or real. Claims about warbikes and butterfly collages sounded legit, but Googling didn’t return promising results. Most likely, random pieces of Taiwanese WWII history just aren’t searchable in English. The only fact I was able to confirm was Lin Wang the elephant. Besides this uncanny valley between fiction and non-fiction, I also had trouble following all the back-and-forth between different time-place-people. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character I was reading about because translated Chinese names never register in my head. That said, all the individual deep dives were great, and I found the story quintessentially Taiwanese.

Hong Kong Noir

Hong Kong Noir

Hong Kong Noir by Jason Ng

It’s been difficult to find English books on HK or by HK authors, so I was glad I stumbled upon this in a Berkeley bookstore. Apparently there is a Noir series with books on a bunch of cities. The short stories themselves were not particularly dark. If anything, the scariest part was how prescient they were.

1) “‘I guess when the government doesn’t look after its people, they have to look to something else.'” – Choi

Up until a few years ago, my two main conceptions about the government were both related to money. 1) You could get make good money at a government job (“iron bowl”). 2) There’s usually a fiscal surplus so they might do a cash handout.

2) “‘I don’t understand what’s with Hong Kong people and their obsession with the lottery! It’s ridiculous.'” – Suze

Lottery is arguably the defining HK pastime.

3) “Where the rest of Hong Kong defines itself by its chaos and right angles, Cheung Chau is about silence and curves.”

Once you get out of Mongkok and Causeway Bay, HK can be so calm and chill.

4) “I hear the slow ping of the Don’t Walk signal turn into a fast metallic rattle and watch a tour group of mainlanders follow their red flag-wielding guide across the road. Every last one of them carries shopping bags emblazoned with names like Louis Vuitton or Giorgio Armani.”

Hong Kong summed up in one imagery.

5) “He predicts that in a few years, Hong Kong will lose even the pretext of voting, will be sequestered by censored internet and state-owned media, and no one will dare question the boss for fear of losing their job or their home.”

When was this written?

6) “A comedian once suggested solving the triad problem by recruiting more police: The law of conservation tells us that having one more cop means one less thug on the street.”

It’s no accident that the most successful HK film of the past 20 years (Infernal Affairs) is about undercover police and undercover triads.

7) “He meant that in Hong Kong it was difficult if not impossible to function socially in both the Chinese and the expat worlds.”

Maybe the same as Chinese in America and Chinese Americans.

8) “Mrs. Cheuk told her that Hong Kong was heaven if you had lots of money, but hell if you had none.”

I agree with this broadly, at least compared to America. The highs are higher, but the lows are lower.

9) “A Chinese news site had put together an animation showing murder methods that could release that much blood.”

Is this referring to those crazy Apple Daily animation videos? What a job it must be to make those.

10) “Because not every building in Wah Fu Estate had ping-pong tables, Wah Ming House became a popular destination for kids. It also helped that Wah Ming was located by the water. The area where the ping-pong tables were had an open design. A breeze could flow freely through.”

This reminded of the ping pong table at my childhood estate. I was also open design and quite breezy.

There were some question marks in this collection of short stories. For example, bad luck associated with the number 14 was brought up multiple times – perhaps understandable if every story were written independently, but the editor could have deduped. Also, there were several stories with an Asian guy and a Western wife. One would already be overrepresentation. Before reading, I had read some reviews saying that the stories aren’t particularly HK and could have taken place anywhere. I’d argue that all of the stories did a good job of integrating HK elements, and I think I was the perfect audience since I could relate but also learned some things that I didn’t know.

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A whimsical, historical fiction version of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. Somehow, the plot centers around the main character’s expertise in seating groups of patrons at a restaurant, against a backdrop of Soviet communism over the years.

1) “For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.”

This stood out as an odd aphorism, and now that I’ve finished the book, it perhaps symbolizes how the main character evolved through the years.

2) “In the old and well-established code of dueling, it is understood that the number of paces the offender and the offended take before shooting should be in inverse proportion to the magnitude of the insult.”

What is the modern day equivalent of the ridiculous concept of dueling? MMA or Yugioh?

3) “‘Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?’ ‘Does an orchestra need a bassoon?'”

In fact, I can’t even remember if we had a bassoon in marching band.

4) “‘It is a sad but unavoidable fact of life that as we age our social circles grow smaller. Whether from increased habit or diminished vigor, we suddenly find ourselves in the company of just a few familiar faces. So I view it as an incredible stroke of good fortune at this stage of my life to have found such a fine new friend.'” – The Count

Diminished vigor. Diminishing marginal value.

5) “On the left was a Scylla of lower-priced dishes that could suggest a penny-pinching lack of flair; and on the right was a Charybdis of delicacies that could empty one’s pockets while painting one pretentious.”

The second item under Entrees is usually my go-to.

6) “A complaint was filed with comrade Teodorov, the Commissar of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.”

And so the solution was to remove labels from a hundred thousand bottles. I guess a true wine connoisseur could tell what wine it is just from the color right?

7) “Not three weeks before – with the temperature hovering around 45 degree Fahrenheit – Theatre Square had been empty and gray.”

I was surprised to see Fahrenheit used several times in the book, so I looked it up. The interwebs say that USSR used Celsius. Hmm.

8) “Like his counterpart on the chessboard, the Bishop of the Metropol never moved along the rank or file.”

I liked the late surge of the unexpected villain – the Bishop.

9) “That is, if a man woke no later than six, engaged in a light repast, and then applied himself without interruption, by the hour of noon he should have accomplished a full day’s labor.”

The twice-tolling clock went off at noon and midnight. If you haven’t finished your work by the former and haven’t gone to bed by the latter, you’ve done something wrong.

10) “For the cinema, the Yanks had apparently discovered how to placate the entire working class at the cost of a nickel a week.”

Sometimes it feels like we as a species spend too much time producing and consuming entertainment, but maybe it is a net positive. It’s not necessarily a good thing when people have too much time. What would I do if people stopped writing books?

I really liked the book as a lighthearted walkthrough of Soviet history – some of its darker parts but also the masterpieces produced by people like Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. I was surprised to realize how I had never mentally processed these greats as Russian. I also learned that Pushkin was a famous Russian poet, not just a hall-in-the-wall in SF that serves pretty good pelmenis. I wouldn’t say this book was particularly memorable or a must-read, but it’s one of the few books that really makes me appreciate culture.

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

you fit into me

like a hook into an eye

 

a fish hook

an open eye

This is my favorite poem. A 9th-grader learned how powerful words could be.

1) “It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”

For me, there are two candidates for word of the year 2019: “disappeared” and “suicided.” Passive voice, not past tense.

2) “Not many things are plastic, anymore. I remember those endless white plastic shopping bags, from the supermarket; I hated to waste them and would stuff them in under the sink, until the day would come when there would be too many and I would open the cupboard door and they would bulge out, sliding over the floor.”

San Francisco, 2020.

3) “The hooks have been set into the brickwork of the Wall, for this purpose. Not all of them are occupied. The hooks look like appliances for the armless. Or steel question marks, upside down and sideways.”

Like a hook into an eye.

4) “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

Semper ubi sub ubi. Always wear underwear.

5) “You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you.”

But bad things happen so often that every generation is a transitional generation.

6) “There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.”

I didn’t get a good grasp on the economic structure of Gilead. At first I thought it was more socialist due to the food stamp-like tickets they used at the stores.

7) “Sorry, he said. This number’s not valid.”

Sometimes I get paranoid that everything is digital and can just vanish or disappear.

8) “I didn’t go on any of the marches. Luke said it would be futile and I had to think about them, my family, him and her.”

I used to think that voting was futile, but now unfortunately I see it as a privilege.

9) “Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.”

More and more, I feel like I are living in an anomaly too. (Relative) peace in the last 70 years is the exception, not the rule. Just the right place at the right time.

10) “As I have said elsewhere, there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.”

I almost didn’t read this epilogue. I’m glad I did because it explained Gilead at a high level. The most chilling part was the “(laughter)” of the audience who seemed to think that such crazy atrocities would never happen again.

Without a doubt, an amazing book and a cautionary tale. At times, I actually found the story less grim and horrific than expected. Based on what I remember, Gilead is a less oppressive regime than, say, the one in 1984. As mentioned in 10), nothing really seemed out of the ordinary, which is the scariest thing about it.

Permanent Record

Permanent Record

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

The Edward Snowden story had peaked before my political consciousness started to take shape, so I never really got what the whole fiasco was about. Therefore, I went into this autobiography with almost no background or context. For me, the overwhelming takeaway is that Snowden is just a normal guy who ended up doing something that normal guys don’t do. Of course, he is trying to portray himself in a certain light, but I’d say that I believe he just acted on what he perceived to be an injustice.

1) Snowden got his sense of mortality from Super Mario Bros.

This claim is probably mostly for the dramatic effect, but it’s true. Life is like Super Mario. It only goes in one direction.

2) Fort Meade is the home of the NSA.

In Anne Arundel County, 1 out of 4 people has a job linked to Fort Meade.

3) After 9/11, Snowden joined the army and was on track to be part of the 18 X-Ray special forces program. 

But he got hurt and was offered an “administrative separation,” meaning he wouldn’t get reassigned but also the army would not be liable. This part of his story got me thinking that Snowden was really just an ordinary guy who makes mistakes.

4) Snowden’s first contracting job at the CIA was through a subcontract at COMSO.

He talks a lot about how terrible the contracting system is. In particular, contractors operated on a cost-plus model such that everyone in the chain benefitted from higher salaries except for the taxpayer who had to fund the CIA.

5) Snowden trained to be a TISO (technical information security officer) and spent 6 months in a Comfort Inn.

This is a minor plot point, but it triggered murky memories of my 6 months at a Holiday Inn Express.

6) Tor stands for The Onion Router.

The Tor protocol relies on volunteers setting up servers all over the world. Traffic goes through many layers and is encrypted such that the origin is not aware of the destination and vice versa.

7) In Switzerland, driving fines are based on the driver’s income.

On paper, it sounds reasonable, but I’d have to read more on whether this works.

8) From his CIA gig in Geneva, Snowden then worked as a contractor for Dell (for NSA) in Tokyo and then Hawaii.

I appreciate that he – as someone who grew up in a Coast Guard household, then joined the army, then worked at the CIA, and then worked at the NSA – had a seemingly in-depth perspective on how different parts of the government fit together.

9) “Acquire” and “obtain” meant the act of retrieval from the database, not the act of data collection.

As a data scientist, I generally oppose the arguments on data presented in this book. That said, nothing is ever clear cut. Every single decision has its pros and cons, and it’s up to the people with power to act properly and to be held accountable.

10) “Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.”

This is the one idea that will stick with me the most. Paraphrasing, privacy is the freedom of the 21st century.

In the past couple years, I’ve started paying more attention to what a government is. I’m reminded of when we had to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address in 6th grade. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. To bring it all together, in the final chapters, Snowden talked about why he chose Hong Kong as his destination. Would he still choose it in 2019?

 

The Overstory

The Overstory

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I was hesitant because I worried that a book about trees would be boring. As it turned out, if I were to summarize it, this really was a book about trees. It’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read. The short stories in the first half are all, on their own, some of the most riveting short stories. I actually thought the book would only be a collection of these short stories, but somehow all the characters came together – most as tree huggers – intertwined in a convoluted plot. I might be reading into it too much, but doesn’t the book structure seem symbolic of the author’s point that trees look independent but are actually all interconnected?

1) “A tree in the Bronx Zoological Park turns October colors in July.”

“October colors in July.” Four words, one vivid imagery. Also, I learned about the decimation of the American chestnut tree.

2) “A Moslem from the land of Confucius, going to the Christian stronghold of Pittsburgh with a handful of priceless Buddhist paintings. Who are we missing?”

I was really struck by how well the author writes an immigrant story.

3) “‘Best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.’ ‘Yep. And you always said the next best time was now.’ ‘Wrong. Next best time, nineteen years ago.'”

I didn’t particularly like Mimi Ma, but her dad is probably my favorite character in the book.

4) “Lenny breaks her elbow, by accident. In self defense, he keeps telling anyone who’ll listen.”

This is definitely a reference to Of Mice and Men.

5) “He doesn’t want to live in a world where twenty-year-olds die so that other twenty-year-olds can study psychology and write about fucked-up experiments.”

I wonder how much of the American psyche is defined by the Vietnam War.

6) “The day is one of those eerie Central Peninsula imitations of heaven – seventy degrees and clear, the air thick with bay laurel and eucalyptus. He drags along the familiar route at half his usual pace, past the modest middle-class bungalows that people will soon pay a million and a half for, just to tear down and rebuild.”

“Imitation of heaven” is an accurate description of the Bay Area. It’s like heaven, but if you look a little harder, it’s only an imitation.

7) “She has followed back roads from Las Vegas, capital of clueless sinners, toward Salt Lake, capital of cunning saints.”

What’s the capital of cunning sinners? Or clueless saints?

8) “‘Insurance is the backbone of civilization. No risk pool – no skyscrapers, no blockbuster movies, no large-scale agriculture, no organized medicine.'” – the lecturer

Same can be said of debt. No debt, no growth.

9) “She marvels again at how the planet’s supreme intelligence could discover calculus and the universal laws of gravitation before anyone knew what a flower was for.”

Every time I get sick, I’m shocked by how little we understand about the human body. We landed on the moon 50 years ago, but we still can’t do better than drink water and get some sleep.

10) “‘The only thing we know how to do is grow. Grow harder; grow faster. More than last year. Growth, all the way up to the cliff and over. No other possibility.'” – Patricia

Now that I’m more in the tech world and pay more attention to the markets, I’m constantly puzzled by how companies are expected to always grow faster. Profits must go up. Stock prices must go up. Everything must be up and to the right. I guess I would like to grow as a person, and if corporations were people, maybe it makes sense?

The last third of the book drags on a bit, but overall this book was extremely well written. The story really fits into the current zeitgeist, and in some ways, defines the environment we live in now. Oftentimes, I’m sad that there aren’t any books for x, so I’m glad that this book exists, for the trees.

The Road

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This book was quite difficult to get through. I don’t know why some sentences had no verbs and why I had to count alternating lines to figure out who “he” was.

1) “What would you do if I died? If you died I would want to die too. So you could be with me? Yes. So I could be with you. Okay.”

Repeat this 200 times, and it’s 50% of the story.

2) “He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too.”

The most riveting theme of the book was the dilemma of self preservation vs helping others, both between the father and son, and between them and other people they run into.

3) “Because the bullet travels faster than sound. It will be in your brain before you can hear it. To hear it you will need a frontal lobe and things with names like colliculus and temporal gyrus and you won’t have them anymore.”

This claim sounded a bit dubious so I looked it up. Seems like there are too many factors for any broad statement to be true.

4) “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall.”

Notwithstanding my dislike of the general writing style, I loved this sentence.

5) “Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? Stop crying. Do you understand?”

I really thought this was foreshadowing, but (spoilers) it wasn’t.

6) “He crossed the room and opened the refrigerator door. Something sat on one of the racks in a coat of gray fur. He shut the door.”

This sentence really struck me because I recently learned that pasta sauce grows moldy in the fridge. This changes the calculus of pasta as a cheap food option.

7) “They came upon themselves in a mirror and he almost raised the pistol. It’s us, Papa, the boy whispered. It’s us.”

We are better than this.

8) “Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates.”

I got really excited for them whenever they found food. But every time, they inexplicably left, in search of the coast.

9) “How would you know if you were the last man on earth?”

The absence of something is hard to prove.

10) “He’d brought the two coils of rope from the locker and he measured the diameter of them with the span of his hand and that by three and then counted the number of coils. Fifty foot ropes.”

I don’t have these survival skills.

The sad thing is that this story is not fiction. It has happened before and will happen again, and it’s likely happening right now somewhere.

Circe

Circe

Circe by Madeline Miller

It is genius to write about Greek/Roman gods. There is so much backstory that requires no explanation. As a reader, I found it a fascinatingly unique experience to read a fresh story but somehow already know all the characters. I think my prior level of knowledge of Circe’s story was perfect. I knew something about basically all the characters but I was unspoiled throughout since I had forgotten most of my Greek mythology.

1) “The Olympians would never be truly happy until they destroyed us utterly.”

One part of Greek mythology I had completely forgotten is the fight between the Olympians and Titans.

2) “Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung.”

Circe was in between the gods and the mortals, which lent to a rich point of view into both sides.

3) “‘Minos claims it, and instead of being a cuckold he shares in my sister’s glory. He becomes the great king who begets monsters and names them after himself.'” – Circe

I was amazed at how many seemingly independent stories (e.g. Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Scylla) were all connected. I guess that’s what happens when everyone lives forever.

4) “When he talked, he was lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan at once, arguing his case, entertaining, pulling back the veil to show you the secrets of the world.”

Great writing.

5) “They had no art to them, which of course was also art.”

No personality is also personality.

6) “‘You are right. I don’t know the world. How could I? You don’t let me out of your sight.'” – Telegonus

This sounds like something I likely said many years ago.

7) “‘Rebellion is for prosperous islands, or else those so ground down they have no other choice.'” – Telemachus

corr(income inequality, rebellion)?

8) “‘Gods pretend to be parents, but they are children, clapping their hands and shouting for more.'” – Circe

The central irony of Greek mythology is that all the gods have human weaknesses.

9) “There was a sort of innocence to him, I thought. I do not mean this as the poets mean it: a virtue to be broken by the story’s end, or else upheld at greatest cost. Nor do I mean that he was foolish or guileless. I mean that he was made only of himself, without the dregs that clog the rest of us. He thought and felt and acted, and all these things made a straight line. No wonder his father had been so baffled by him. He would have been always looking for the hidden meaning, the knife in the dark. But Telemachus carried his blade in the open.”

One of the reasons I keep reading is for the occasional writing like this.

10) “All my life I have been moving forward, and now I am here. I have a mortal’s voice, let me have the rest. I lift the brimming bowl to my lips and drink.”

I wondered how the book would end, and this was an unexpected yet perfect ending.

I really enjoyed this book. The writing was simple yet sophisticated. The stories presented a completely new angle to understand this set of famous characters. Unlike dry textbooks, this book gives us their thoughts and motivations. They might be fictional, but the original was also fictional, so who’s to say who the real Circe is?

Last Days of the Concorde

Last Days of the Concorde

Last Days of the Concorde by Samme Chittum

Why are flights so slow? It seems like the same flight takes longer every year. Why does it take 6.5 hours to fly from Boston to SF – without delays? For someone who flies a lot, I don’t know much about planes at all. The physics of how it works is obviously out of the question, but even the business/economics of airlines is a blind spot. I tried to take a class senior fall, but it was senior fall, and classes were low on my priority list. So here I am, learning about the Concorde for the first time.

1) The Concorde cruised at about 60K ft, compared to 30K-40K for normal commercial planes.

This made it much easier to see Earth’s curvature . Maybe we need to bring the Concorde back.

2) Only 20 Concordes were ever built, and only 14 were for commercial service. British Airways and Air France each had 7.

I had no idea that the Concorde was a British-French project. I don’t really think of either country as a leader in aviation.

3) There are 3 critical speed thresholds during a takeoff: V1, VR, and V2min.

At V1, the plane cannot abort takeoff. At VR, the pilot raises the nose of the plane. At V2min, the plane has reached the necessary speed to achieve a safe takeoff.

4) 96 of the 100 passengers onboard 4590 were German.

Given the high price, it was common for Concordes to be booked for specific purposes. In this case, a German tour group was on its way to New York.

5) Because the delta wings could not provide enough lift at subsonic speeds, the tires were crucial for bearing the weight of the Concorde during takeoff.

The tires turned out to be the weakest link (or at least one of them). It’s humbling to think how much thought and engineering go into one successful flight.

6) Sonic boom is continuous once the plane surpasses the speed of sound.

The loud noise generated by the Concorde severely limited the routes it could fly, as it was mostly restricted to transatlantic flights. Even during takeoff – before hitting Mach 1, the Concorde is way louder than the average commercial plane. I watched some Youtube videos and had to turn the volume down.

7) Ultimately, the crash was caused by the plane running over a metal strip left over by a previous plane.

Talk about butterfly effects. The metal strip caused pieces of the tire to break off and hit the fuel tank at high speeds. This sent a shockwave through the tank, which started leaking fuel. The fuel then was ignited by an electric arc in the landing gear bay which could not be retracted. The fire then caused 2 engines to surge. After the incident, maintaining the Concorde became too costly, and now we have 20-hour long flights.

8) While the metal strip was the main culprit, there were a few other controllable factors.

The Concorde had a long history of tire issues – with tires deflating or bursting once every 4000 flying hours, which was 60x normal aircraft. The plane that day was also a bit overweight, and the takeoff took place with tailwind. Both of these factors added to the difficulty of the take off. Finally, the full tank was the perfect scenario for the internal shockwaves within the fuel tank.

9) French President Chirac was taxiing nearby during the Concorde crash.

It’s unlikely that the pilots knew this, but at one point, the Concorde was veering towards Chirac’s plane.

10) The Concorde actually regained its certificate of airworthiness on Sep 6, 2001.

While the crash certainly indirectly led to the end of the Concorde, the plane was back in service for a bit before it ultimately became too expensive to maintain, as it no longer made economic sense for Airbus to produce and maintain the parts and for the airlines to operate the flights.

I was shocked that the Concorde flew until 2003. That’s only 16 years ago. Somehow, the idea of supersonic flying seems to be completely out of the question now. This is a perfect example of the cognitive dissonance I experience when I juxtapose human achievements and our mundane struggles. We can build supersonic planes but we can’t get people to pay for them. We can fly into space but we can’t change lanes properly.  That’s humanity.

 

The Wheel of Time – The Eye of the World

The Wheel of Time - The Eye of the World

The Wheel of Time – The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Following my foray into Game of Thrones, I decided to pick up Wheel of Time to see what it’s all about. The all-knowing internet tells me it’s a classic fantasy franchise, and there is an upcoming TV show on Amazon Prime. So I have to jump on the bandwagon now.

1) “Aes Sedai do things for their own reasons, and those are not always the reasons you think.”

The beginning of the book was quite tough to follow. There were so many characters, each with their own history/background/motivation/secrets. Even by the end, I still wasn’t really sure how the different factions fit together.

2) “‘But the treasure. We can’t just leave it now.'” – Mat

Classic rookie move. Mat was the most annoying character, especially until it became clear why he was acting this way.

3) “‘I gave each of the boys a token. It created a bond of sorts between them and me. So long as they are alive and have those coins in their possession, I will be able to find them.'” – Moraine

I enjoyed the story the most when the whole crew was together. When they were split up (the second third of the book), the story dragged on and was noticeably more boring.

4) “‘Dapple says she smelled Halfmen and Trollocs in your minds while you were telling that fool story.'” – Elyas

Of the split-up storylines, the best was Perrin’s, where he suddenly became one with the wolves.

5) “‘The leaf lives its appointed time, and does not struggle against the wind that carries it away. The leaf does not harm, and finally falls to nourish new leaves. So it should be with all men. And women.'” – Aram

The hippie way.

6) “‘Who would I sell it to, Rand? A farmer would have to pay in chickens; we couldn’t buy a carriage with chickens. And if I even showed it in any village we’ve been through, they’d probably think we stole it.'” – Mat

This is why money was invented.

7) “‘The Wheel of Time weaves the Pattern of the Ages, and lives are the threads it weaves. No one can tell how the thread of his own life will be woven into the Pattern, or how the thread of a people will be woven.'” – Loial

The concept of the “pattern” was a nice backdrop, but it wasn’t fleshed out enough.

8) “A lone supporter of the Queen, running, could well spark a white-cockaded mob to pursuit.”

Reading this during the HK protests was a bit too real.

9) “‘Mother, often you tell me I must know our people, from the highest to the lowest, but whenever I meet any of them it is with a dozen attendants. How can I come to know anything real or true under such circumstances?”” – Elayne

By definition, an emperor does not know his subjects.

10) “‘Suspicion is smothering Caemlyn, perhaps all of Andor. Fear and black suspicion. Women denounce their neighbors for Darkfriends. Men scrawl the Dragon’s Fang on the doors of the people they have known for years.'” – Queen Morgase

Sometimes it’s hard to tell fiction from nonfiction.

After finishing the book, I immediately googled Wheel of Time. This first book was 800 pages and introduced a ton of characters, but it was clear the author had barely scratched the surface of his world. I was even more confused after watching some Youtube videos and reading wikis. It’s as if this book were 1% of the story. Given there are 14 books in total, my estimate isn’t too far off. Unfortunately, my conclusion is that the series is way too long and complex for me to invest time. The story is decent but I didn’t really find myself connecting with any of the characters.

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

I had earmarked this for my Malaysia book, but the one-liner synopsis seemed too similar to Pachinko, so I put it off for a while. The author does an amazing job of portraying Cameron Highlands, and now I want to visit. The story also seamlessly weaves together historical elements and somehow connects the South Africans to the British to the communists to the Malays to the Japanese. In my few trips to Malaysia, my most vivid observation was how multiracial it was. I know it has its problems, but it definitely sets Malaysia apart from most other countries, and I was glad to see this motif front and center in the book. Beyond the educational historical context, the book mainly explores three types of Japanese art: gardens, woodprint blocks, and body tattoos.

1) “On one wall, a gallery of former judges stared down at me, their faces changing from European to Malay and Chinese and Indian, from monochrome to color.”

One sentence to sum up the last century.

2) “I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.”

Somehow I can visualize this in my head.

3) “They couldn’t kill me when we were at war. And they couldn’t kill me when I was in the camp…. But holding on to my hatred for forty-six years…that would have killed me.”

I wonder how my approach to life would change if I had to live through a war. I feel like I can never really understand my grandparents because I’ve never gone through something like WW2.

4) “As a prisoner, I had been afraid to open my eyes in the morning; now, when I was no longer in the camp, now when I was free, I was frightened of closing my eyes when I went to sleep at night, fearful of the dreams that were waiting for me.”

Sleep is heaven on earth.

5) “Such a simple, basic act, to touch the earth we walked on with our bare hands, but I could not remember the last time I had done it.”

Trying to remember the last time I did this. Does volunteering to plant trees count?

6) “She opened another carton and took out a batch of paper lanterns, each one pressed flat. She gave one to me. It extended like an accordion when I pulled at both ends.”

This brings me back to Mid-Autumn festival nights in my childhood.

7) “Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty.”

I learned a lot about various Japanese arts. One concept that I’ll (hopefully) remember is shakkei – how gardens borrow from their background.

8) “”You Chinese are more terrified of merdeka than we whites.'” – Aldrich

The period of Malayan independence -> formation of Malaysia -> Singapore independence is fascinating.

9) “Lying in my bed at night, I listened to the army shelling a CT camp in a valley nearby. Some nights I would go out and stand on the verandah. The sky throbbed from the detonations, lit up by these unnatural northern lights. ‘Aurora equatorialis,” Magnus called them.”

We wanted Northern lights and meteor showers. Instead, we got forest fires and projectile bombs.

10) “Blackened by decades of soot and incense smoke, the red calligraphy painted on them had ruptured and bled into the tattered cloth, words turned to wounds.”

At the beginning, I was unsure if this book had been originally written in Chinese. Lines like this made it clear that the answer was no.

The Garden of Evening Mists is very well written, especially in its depictions of the setting. The whole time I was reading it, I felt like I was in Malaysia. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, and some of the key plot points were a stretch (like Yun Ling’s sister wanting to build a Japanese garden). But all in all, I’m not surprised a movie is on the way.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates

Inspector Imanishi Investigates

Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto

After reading Under the Midnight Sun, I was eager to try more Japanese mysteries. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many that have been translated into English. Even more unfortunately, this book was not that great. I had expected a fast-paced page turner, but this story was slow and didn’t really read like a whodunnit.

1) “It was a supplement, a folded color map entitled ‘A Guide to Japan’s Famous Hot Spring Areas.’ Imanishi lay down and held the map above his head, his attention drawn to the northeastern region of Japan.”

Perhaps the best part of this book was the overview of the different regions of Japan, which came in handy since I was planning a trip. Instead of holding a map above my head, I held my phone over my head, zooming in and out on Google Maps.

2) “‘We go on various business trips like this. And afterward, rather than the scenery or problems I might have encountered, what I remember is the food.'” – Yoshimura

This. And smell. The lemon W Bliss soap bar will forever trigger memories of Dallas. And the pungent smell of the Beijing airport is truly unforgettable.

3) “‘After supper, he said he was tired and went to sleep without even taking a bath. That made the people think that he was quite odd.'” – the station chief

The only way to settle the shower at night vs morning debate is to shower twice a day.

4) “‘What? No, Father didn’t have a Tohoku accent.'” – Miki Shokichi

The first half of the mystery inexplicably revolves around an accent. Random thought: is being able to distinguish accents the best indicator for whether you know a language? (Actually no, since I can tell different Mandarin accents apart.)

5) “One of the pleasures in his life was to lie in bed and read the newspaper as he smoked.”

Waking up without an alarm, realizing you have no plans, and then reading in bed – sans smoking – is indeed amazing.

6) “‘Would you ask the conductor the exact times buses stop here around eight o’clock at night?'” – Imanishi

I appreciate the subtle implication that buses actually arrive on schedule.

7) “‘Besides, she ate the whole tangerine. It was so sour, I couldn’t eat mine at all.'” – Imanishi’s sister

100% accurate predictor of pregnancy.

8) “The shop owner pulled an unwieldy large abacus toward her and began figuring their bill.”

The author really portrays what life was like in the 60s. The story is much more realistic, mundane, and boring than most mysteries.

9) “‘The previews are more interesting than the movies, aren’t they?'” – Imanishi’s wife

There are two opposing effects. Yes trailers are supposed to be the most exciting parts of a movie, but most movies are bad. Therefore, on average, I’m not sure the previews are better than a movie I’ve chosen to watch.

10) “‘I just checked the files, but that request form is one that we only keep for five years, so it has already been disposed of.'” – the clerk

TTL should be set to infinity.

My biggest complaint about this book is that there were too many characters, and I couldn’t follow who was who. The problem was partially because I don’t really process Japanese names, but I also felt that most characters were not well developed. By the end, I had lost track of the characters and generally felt meh about the ridiculous ending. Overall, disappointed.

Pinpoint

Pinpoint

Pinpoint by Greg Milner

One of my favorite parts of my job is working with geospatial data. I’ve been playing around with my Swarm data for years, but it’s a far cry from analyzing millions of rides with hundreds of columns of metadata. GPS is foundational to everything I look at, and while it’s sometimes frustratingly inaccurate, it’s still mind-boggling how prevalent location data has become. We now complain when Google Maps traffic estimate is off by a few minutes. Ten years ago, I was using a giant map book and had to flip pages whenever we crossed town boundaries. So how did GPS take over our lives?

1) 4 GPS satellites are needed to accurately pinpoint a location.

3 satellites create 3 spheres that intersect at 2 points. One of the two points is either miles above or below sea level. The 4th satellite is there to resolve any timing ambiguities.

2) GLONASS is the Russian version of GPS and is – for now – the only other satellite navigation system with global coverage.

The most shocking thing I learned from the book is that GPS is American.

3) Etak is a form of dead reckoning used by the Polynesians that relied on using star bearings and reference islands.

I honestly still can’t conceptualize how this works. I think you have to know where you started and how fast you’re going – all in your head.

4) Back in the day, determining longitude was much harder than determining latitude.

The equator and the poles meant that latitude was actually a fixed concept, while longitude depended on using a prime meridian as a reference point. Another gotcha about lat/long is that 1 degree translates into different distances depending on where on Earth you are.

5) The second is defined as the time that elapses during a transition between 2 states of the caesium atom.

It’s not defined by the Earth’s rotation, which fluctuates too much.

6) The Air Force was responsible for space projects like satellites, but the early users of GPS were in other parts of the military like the Army, Marines, and Navy.

The history is convoluted so I don’t remember it all from the book, but the gist is that the Air Force did not really want to run the GPS program.

7) The GPS signal has two forms: the P (precise) code and the C/A (coarse acquisition) code. Only military receivers could decipher the P code.

Interestingly, there were two broadcast channels, one with P + C/A combined and one with only P. If one channel failed, the military could still use the other channel to receive the P code.

8) In addition to the P vs C/A split, there was also selective availability, where noise was added to the C/A code to prevent enemies from using GPS against Americans.

Selective availability was briefly turned off during wars in the 1990s. Two other factors also contributed to its removal in 2000. 1) Differential GPS (DGPS) was able to correct for the noise anyway 2) Selective availability was severely hurting the commercial growth of civilian GPS. $ speaks.

9) Studies determined that voice-only instructions were the most effective compared to maps or even a combination of voice and maps.

Coincidentally, I went on my first ever solo road trip while reading this book. I’d say I still looked at my Google Maps app every time.

10) A datum is a coordinate system that turns GPS signals into latitudes and longitudes tied to real locations.

The current world standard is the Earth-centered WGS 84.

This book was a bit dry at the beginning as it walked through the history of GPS within the U.S. military, but it picked up in the second half. It was also very informational, and I learned a lot about how we came to live with something so taken for granted nowadays. Here’s to hoping I’ll find some time and energy to start a side project.

 

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Going back to the origin of this blog, one of my main goals was to read about places I’ve traveled to. It’s a way to experience a place through a completely different lens. As such, I’ve always had a tendency to favor books about places or people of places. That’s why Invisible Cities stood out to me. I don’t even remember which book referenced it. Was it Flights? Or Story of Your Life and Others? Or maybe even Turn Right at Machu Picchu? But I do remember jotting it down right away. Maybe it’s a testament to how far reaching its ideas are that I can’t even link it to back to a specific reference. This book is about everything and everywhere.

1) “Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter.”

Over and over again, the author gives new perspectives to mundane things.

2) “Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel-driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.”

My friends and I spend an outsized amount of time talking about where to live. The one clear thread is that grass is greener on the other side, but it really isn’t.

3) “The emperor is he who is a foreigner to each of his subjects.”

Twitter Profile: Father. Husband. Son. Foreigner to my subjects.

4) “If the traveller does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits.”

The whole “it used to be so much better” concept is counterproductive.

5) “From now I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have conceived them.”

This reminds me of the Caesar games. That was the peak of my urban planning skills.

6) “In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.”

One thing I want to work on is to fight my natural instinct to run away from strangers. Years of stranger-danger training have made me incapable of helping people with directions.

7) “I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others. It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist.”

P(A) = P(1-A)^n.

8) “In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.”

As I read the book, I started mentally constructing each city in my head. I then googled and found that others have had similar ideas. I’d love to go to an Invisible Cities museum.

9) “It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new.”

The amount of trash I generate everyday is staggering, and I basically don’t buy anything except for food.

10) “The world is covered by a sole Trade which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”

This is how I feel flying domestically in the US.

It took me a bit to get used to the structure and language of this book, but once I did, I really started to appreciate it. There are very few books where I feel my mind horizon permanently expand, and this was definitely one of them. One day, I’d like to draw out some of these cities for fun.

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Game of Thrones is finally over. Other than a 5-minute futile attempt while psetting, I’ve never watched any of it. I was shocked to learn that the first episode had come out in 2011. I kind of knew that in the back of my mind, but it’s still crazy that it’s been 8 years. If Harry Potter were the fantasy franchise of the aughts, then GoT must be the equivalent of the teens. I had resisted reading the books for a while, but somehow the horrific reception of the last season finally pushed me over the edge.

1) “‘You have five trueborn children. Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord.'” – Jon

As with all good epic dramas, you need a big family and an illegitimate son. The direwolves are a nice addition, although they’re mostly used as a plot device to get the protagonists get out of sticky situations.

2) “‘It should have been you'” – Catelyn

Along with the illegitimate son, you need the emotional/irrational parent who messes things up.

3) “‘I’m desperately sentimental, sweet lady. Best not tell anyone. I have spent years convincing the court that I am wicked and cruel, and I should hate to see all that hard work go for naught.'” – Littlefinger

Littlefinger was one of the most enjoyable characters. His lines were provocative, and he always made things interesting.

4) “‘We all need to be mocked from time to time, Lord Mormont, lest we start to take ourselves too seriously.'” – Tyrion

This quote is very irrelevant, but I love the word “lest”, and this is a perfect “use word in a sentence” example.

5) “I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead now that I’ve won it.”

I’m struggling to think of another fictional character who was as DOA as this king. It took a frustratingly long time for him to die.

6) “His cell was miserably small, even for a dwarf. Not five feet away, where a wall ought to have been, where a wall would be in a proper dungeon, the floor ended and the sky began.”

This sounds like a business opportunity. People would pay $$$$ for this glamping experience.

7) “‘The night of our wedding feast, the first time we shared a bed, he called me by your sister’s name.'” – Cersei

Classic.

8) “‘You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark. You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move.'” – Littlefinger

What a great metaphor.

9) “‘The Freys have held the crossing for six hundred years, and for six hundred years they have never failed to exact their toll.'” – Catelyn

Own assets. Charge rent. Profit.

10) “‘I don’t want to marry you. You chopped off my father’s head!'” – Sansa

Sansa is helpless throughout the book, but this line makes up for her stupidity.

I really enjoyed these characters. The plot was largely predictable and unremarkable, but the cast of characters all had distinct, memorable personalities. The author’s decision to write each chapter from one character’s point of view was brilliant and maybe even necessary, considering how hard it was to keep track of everyone. Even though this book was awesome, I probably won’t read the rest of the series. It’s too long and not even finished yet. And it’s very difficult to avoid spoilers. It was easier to mentally block out GoT references when I had absolutely no knowledge, but now that I know the premise, it’s impossible.

The Fifth Risk

The Fifth Risk

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

It’s been a while since I read Flash Boys. I’ve been avoiding this genre, but there’s no denying that Michael Lewis books are super entertaining and informative. Even better, this one is about how the government works – not in theory, but in practicality. What do federal employees do? And how has Trump changed their day-to-day? Caveat that the author paints the Trump administration in a horrible light.

1) After the election in 2016, political appointees often didn’t show up, leaving department employees in limbo.

When they finally did show up at the DOE, they asked for a list of employees who had attended meetings on climate change. Then they deleted the email addresses of scientists to make communication more difficult.

2) Almost half of DOE’s $30 billion annual budget is spent on our nuclear arsenal.

In the past 8 years, the department has collected enough nuclear material from various places to make 160 nuclear bombs. It also spends $3 billion a year cleaning up nuclear waste in Hanford, WA.

3) DOE provides low interest loans to promote innovation in alternative energy.

The program is infamous for Solyndra, but it’s also lent money to Tesla, which repaid the loan 9 years early.

4) “A&M” stands for Agricultural and Mechanical.

Land grant colleges were created by the Morrill Act of 1862.

5) The Department of Agriculture overlooks meat, while the FDA is responsible for all other foods.

Cheese pizza is the FDA’s problem. Pepperoni pizza is the USDA’s problem. USDA Prime beef is not a problem.

6) USDA used to limit chicken processing to 140 a minute.

The book talks about a 2017 proposal to increase this limit to 175 per minute. It’s been passed since.

7) The average National Weather Service tornado warning comes 13 minutes before the tornado strikes.

I’ve never really thought about how sudden tornadoes are. I don’t know why my mental model for a tornado was a landlocked hurricane.

8) The National Weather Service is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Department of … Commerce.

The Department of Commerce has almost nothing to do with trade. It’s really the department of data. It runs the census, collects economic data, and sets measurement standards.

9) Wilbur Ross was appointed head of the Department of Commerce.

Ross had lied about his financial assets to get on the Forbes list of rich people. The story writes itself.

10) The five day forecast in 2016 was as accurate as the one day forecast in 2005.

We only recently started performing better than random guessing for the nine day forecast.

It’s sad that government employees are generally not held in high regard, and most of their work is taken for granted. The best they can do is for things to work as normal. When things go wrong, they’re blamed. Add on top of that the constant churn of their politically appointed bosses. And on top of that, their current bosses often have no experience in the field and sometimes even  stand in opposition to their work.

 

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Spurred on by 3BP hype, I looked around for more sci-fi and found this oddly named book. Eventually, I realized it’s meant to be interpreted as “Stories of Your Life” and other (short stories). I also learned that the movie Arrival is based on Stories of Your Life. I don’t know why the name is different, and – no –  Arrival is not Passengers.

1) “And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, the carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear as opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder.”

I’m always drawn to anything about the Tower of Babylon. It’s my #1 Biblical reference for no particular reason.

2) “Pattern recognition again, but this time it’s of a mundane variety. Thousands of pages of reports, memos, correspondence; each one is a dot of color in a pointillist painting. I step back from this panorama, watching for lines and edges to emerge and create a pattern.” 

So if I were superhuman, I wouldn’t have to query 10 tables and cut the data by 20 dimensions?

3) “The thing is, while the common formulation of physical law is causal, a variational principle like Fermat’s is purposive, almost teleological.”

I learned about Fermat’s principle of least time. Beyond that, the broader concept of “goal-oriented” physics reminds me of biology. The answer to every biology question is some form of “what would this organism do to survive?”

4) “‘Men are no different from your automata; slip a bloke a piece of paper with the proper figures on it, and he’ll do your bidding.'” – the assassin

This automata-naming story was not my favorite, but this line was a zinger.

5) “We should always remember that the technologies that made metahumans possible were originally invented by humans, and they were no smarter than we.”

Is this a valid argument? I think the problem is that “smart” is ill-defined.

6) “Good skin is the single best indicator of youth and health, and it’s valued in every culture.”

Damn it.

7) “When you watch Olympic athletes in competition, does your self-esteem plummet? Of course not. On the contrary, you feel wonder and admiration; you’re inspired that such exceptional individuals exist. So why can’t we feel the same way about beauty? Feminism would have us to apologize for having that reaction. It wants to replace aesthetics with politics, and to the extent it’s succeeded, it’s impoverished us.”

The short story on lookism was too real. Debates about personal choice, inequality, last-minute pre-election bombshell, and fake news.

8) “‘Suppose you learn that you are alive twenty years from now. Then nothing could kill you in the next twenty years. You could then fight in battles without a care, because your survival is assured.'”

The concept of predetermination was common across many of the short stories. I especially liked the one with the clicker that could always predict when someone clicks it.

9) “But in truth the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin.”

I wonder if the author was making an analogy to how humans would eventually die once we’ve depleted our natural resources.

10) “You won’t believe what my Natasha did today! We were at the playground, and another digient hurt himself when he fell and was crying. Natasha gave him a hug to make him feel better, and I praised her to high heaven. Next thing I know, she pushes over another digient to make him cry, hugs him, and looks to me for praise!”

Is this AI or raising a child?

I was impressed by the variety of sci-fi stories in this book. They were all about science and tech, but each one had a very different feel. Some were more psychological, some were heavier with social commentary, and some had strong religious overtones. I also liked how the author included explanations at end about how he came up with each story.

Flights

Flights

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

As a former frequent flyer struggling to keep my statuses, I was intrigued by a book about flights and flying. I didn’t really know what the book was about, and it turned out to be a very random collection of thoughts and short stories – some completely fictional and some historically accurate. Even though there was no real plot, I found it hard to put down this subtly entertaining book.

1) “They weren’t real travelers: they left in order to return. And they were relieved when they got back, with a sense of having fulfilled an obligation.”

The two best parts of any vacation are booking the tickets and coming home.

2) “Am I like that lost day when you fly east, and that regained night that comes from going west?” 

If you’re taking a redeye, it’s a lost night flying and a lost day being out of it.

3) “Soon we may well say that it’s the cities that supplement the airports, as workplaces and places to sleep.”

Airports and hospitals have always been the most amazing places to me.

4) “The apartment doesn’t understand what’s happened. The apartment thinks its owner has died.”

Isn’t it ironic that after a trip of new places and new experiences, we come back to the same room, with the same clothes on the floor and the blanket folded the same way we left it?

5) “Stand aside, get your day’s wages just by staying at a hotel, have some coffee in the morning and a buffet breakfast, take advantage of the smorgasbord’s wide range of different yogurts. Why not?”

New travel rule: always leave enough flex so that you can take that $300 and a later flight.

6) “Such disturbances can be explained by the discrepancy between the pilgrims’ expectations and the reality of Paris, which bears no resemblance to the city described in guidebooks, films, and television.”

Paris remains my top travel letdown. I’m sure I’ll give it another chance that may change my mind, but 7 years on, it’s still the most disappointing destination I’ve ever been to.

7) “When he sees something out of the ordinary, something new and beautiful, he so wants to share it with someone that he becomes deeply unhappy if there’s no one around.”

For me, this is the strongest argument against solo travel, but it doesn’t outweigh the arguments for it.

8) “There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us – we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetic bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language!”

Very interesting perspective. It always strikes me as funny when two foreigners (e.g. Chinese and Korean) can only communicate in English.

9) “For anything that has a stable place in this world – every country, church, every human government, everything that has preserved a form in this hell – is at his command.”

When you travel, you hit pause on all your real problems and acquire a new set of more tactical, inconsequential problems that you feel proud solving (e.g. by using Google maps).

10) “Reception areas are better than cafes. You don’t have to order anything, you don’t have to get into any disputes with the waiters, or eat anything.”

Big hotels will always have their lobbies going for them.

All of my quotes here come from the brief “thoughts” chapters that are interweaved between longer short stories. Those short stories were just as interesting if not as quotable. A lot of them were about dissecting bodies and preserving organs, which I found weird topics. In retrospect, I guess the author was juxtaposing the transience of travel with the permanence of organs in jars. Maybe.

If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

With a title like that, how could I not read this book? Apparently other people also came to this conclusion, so I had to wait weeks for the ebook from SFPL. Unfortunately, this book was disappointing. It tried very hard to be deep but read like a children’s book, yet not in a good way like Le Petit Prince.

1) “I had a slight fever that was plaguing me and a pounding migraine on the right side of my head. Since I hate going to the doctor, I was just barely keeping myself together with the help of some over-the-counter drugs, but after two weeks with no improvement I finally caved in.”

Headaches are no joke.

2) “‘In order to gain something, you have to lose something.'” – Aloha 

This was the whole premise of the story, but the idea was already stale by the second chapter.

3) “I wonder why people always expect from others things that they themselves can’t or won’t do.”

Wow I should be more conscious of this. My expectations are already low and may need to be lower.

4) “With the invention of mobile phones, the idea of not being able to find the person you’re supposed to be meeting disappeared. People forgot what it meant to be kept waiting.”

I want to see a longitudinal study with questions like: “How long do you expect to wait for a text response?”, “How long do you expect to wait for the DMV to call you back?”, and see how the answers change over time.

5) “There are lots of people in this world who want to sell their souls to the devil. The problem is, there isn’t a devil around who’s willing to buy.”

When someone sells out, who’s the buyer?

6) “It’s the future you’ll never get to see that you really regret missing most of all when you die.”

Optimism is one of the most powerful traits of humanity.

7) “Cabbage looked like he had no idea what the hell I was talking about. He must have truly forgotten her. Cabbage’s complete ignorance made me so sad.”

I’ll confess that I didn’t know cats and dogs have no long term memory. Do they really not? Google is inconclusive.

8) “‘Yes. That’s what I remember when I look at these photos. Simply that I was happy.'” – Cabbage

I used to hate taking pictures, but not anymore. The feeling of nostalgic happiness from looking at old pictures is unreplicable.

9) “Cats don’t need us. It’s us who needs them.”

That’s why dogs are superior.

10) “You discovered that despite the boredom and the everyday routines of life that there is a real beauty in it.”

This is my nightly 11:30pm thought.

My order of disappearance:

1 – Cats

2 – Movies

3 – Clocks

4 – Phones

5 – Me

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

With age comes sickness. Now that I think about it, I’ve been dealing with some sort of nontrivial health problem ever since I moved to SF. Is it age? Or is it just that I actually have the time and mental bandwidth now to care about my health? Anyway, it all culminated with an ER visit where it hit me how little we know about how our bodies work. Modern medicine can solve a lot of problems but still has so far to go. One day, I hope the final verdict won’t be “take tynenol and drink more water.”

1) Sidney Farber specialized in pediatric pathology and is considered the father of modern chemotherapy.

I never really registered just how much of a medical powerhouse Boston is.

2) Penicillin was so valuable during WWII that it was recycled from the urine of patients to be used again on other patients.

In half a century, we’ve gone from lacking antibiotics to fearing resistance from overuse.

3) Hippocrates introduced the concept of the four humors: red, black, yellow, and white. Galen then attributed cancer to black bile.

Is Galen closer to our modern understanding of cancer, or are we closer to the truth?

4) Halsted popularized the concept of radical mastectomy, in which surgeons removed large parts of the patient’s body in an attempt to cure cancer.

The main storyline of the book is the evolution of cancer treatment. It’s amazing to see all the breakthroughs and wrong turns. Maybe iterate isn’t as empty a buzzword as it seems.

5) Marie Curie died from anemia that she got from prolonged exposure to radiation.

Radiation cures and radiation kills.

6) Jimmy of the Jimmy Fund, whose actual name was Einar Gustafson, was a child patient with lymphoma.

Farber was trying to find a way to raise money for cancer research. Back in those days, he found the Boston Braves, not the Boston Red Sox.

7) The NSF was founded in 1950 to promote basic scientific research.

When I did my DC internship, I think we visited the NSF. I can’t see our government pulling through and creating institutions like this anymore. Or maybe we just need a crisis, like how the 2008 economic crisis gave us the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

8) Mary Lasker was an influential figure who kickstarted the War of Cancer in 1971 by pulling strings to get the National Cancer Act passed in 1971.

She was instrumental in getting political and popular support for cancer research. She recognized that curing cancer was not only about science. It was also about fundraising and advertising.

9) Chemotherapy can generally be split into cytotoxic, hormonal, or targeted.

Early chemotherapy (and maybe still the majority?) involved using chemicals that killed cell growth in a blanket manner. The way the book describes these treatments, doctors found a bunch of chemicals that worked and tried to combine as many of them as possible. The more toxic it was, the better the remission rate, but also the more painful.

10) Major tobacco companies released an ad in 1954 called “A Frank Statement” to discredit science claiming that smoking caused cancer.

FUD never fails.

This was a very well written book that made me once again appreciate how hard science is. We take so much for granted now and don’t recognize how difficult it is to measure, test, and prove something. Without science, none of us would be here.

 

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Based on the title, the book cover, and the long wait time for the ebook, I expected this to be Murakami-lite. It turned out to be quite different. Even though there’s a bit of the magic realism, this book is mostly a slow burn love story where we go on “dates” – official and unofficial – with the two main protagonists. A quarter of the way in, I was getting slightly annoyed by the lack of plot, but as the story went on, it became obvious that the pacing was a real reflection of their relationship over time. Beyond the story, I especially liked how the author put everyday senses front and center. The detailed descriptions of food made me feel like I was eating with the characters and really highlighted the experience of solo dining at Japanese restaurants.

1) “Taking my seat at the counter, I ordered ‘Tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root, and salted shallots,’ while the old man next to me requested ‘Salted shallots, lotus root fries, and tuna with fermented soybeans’ almost simultaneously.”

Kudos to the translator.

2) “‘I feel pity for these batteries that worked so hard for my benefit, and I can’t throw them away. It seems a shame to get rid of them the moment they die, after these batteries have illuminated my lights, signaled my sounds, and run my motors.'” – Sensei 

I also feel bad throwing away batteries, probably because of the “thud” sound they make when they hit the trash can. That said, the real problem here is that we shouldn’t have batteries in the first place.

3) “Sensei arrived at the bus stop just after I did. I had gotten there fifteen minutes early, and he got there ten minutes early. It was a beautiful Sunday.”

Any day when everyone shows up early is a beautiful day.

4) “‘Tsukiko, this is not what one calls mountain climbing.'” – Sensei

Basically all the “hikes” I do.

5) “It felt as if I had ordered a bunch of clothes that I had every reason to think would fit perfectly, but when I went to try them on, some were too short, while others the hem dragged on the floor. Surprised, I would take the clothes off and hold them up against my body, only to find that they were all, in fact, the right length. Or something like that.”

This describes almost all my clothes shopping experiences, but she is making an analogy for family visits.

6) “I just wanted plain, regular water, but when I ordered ‘Water,’ they brought out mineral water. I was so parched and hoping to quench my thirst, but the moment I swallowed it down, I choked and nearly threw up.”

Here I am writing this while drinking a Phocus, but it’s undeniable that normal water (cold) is superior to mineral/sparkling water.

7) “I tried to ask, Why would you think to bring me here? But the seagulls were wild with excitement. My words were drowned out by their cries and Sensei didn’t hear me.”

Another example of the author portraying everyday senses.

8) “‘It’s good warm. It’s good chilled. It’s good boiled. It’s good fried. It’s versatile.'” – Sensei

Tofu.

9) “It grows because you plant it.”

Is this a subtle reference to Le Petit Prince?

10) “‘Would you consider a relationship with me, based on a premise of love?'” – Sensei

The whole book leads up to this awkward question, and it really ties up the entire story.

Footnote: there is a chapter called “The Cricket.”

Milk

Milk

Milk by Mark Kurlansky

I really wanted to like this book. It was supposed to be the great followup to Steak, and I had high hopes since this author has a bunch of other books on single food topics like Cod and Salt. But it was very disappointing. There were way too many random page-long recipes, and the chapters had no structure at all. It was basically a bunch of random milk-related facts one after another, and the thing that I’ll remember the most is the Youtube video I watched about how to make butter.

1) Lactose intolerance is natural for mammals. Humans are the only mammals who drink milk as adults. The ability to produce milk is also one of the defining traits of mammals.

Two weeks ago, I tried drinking whole milk by itself for the first time in years. It was disgusting. Still better than skim or 2% milk though.

2) The word “galaxy” comes from the Greek word for milk, “gala.”

Now Milky Way makes sense.

3) Human milk has more lactose than most other milk, making it sweeter.

Based on chemical composition, donkey milk is the closest to human milk. Also, milk and honey are both considered rare sweets.

4) Rennet is used to turn milk into curds. The leftover liquid is whey.

Rennet interacts with the negatively-charged casein proteins in milk so the proteins can start bonding.

5) Ricotta is a whey cheese, meaning it’s made from whey leftover from making other cheese.

One key takeaway is that people have tried anything and everything with milk. It’s hard to keep track of how things are made, and mislabeling contributes to the problem. For example, skyr is actually a cheese not a yogurt, and commercial buttermilk is a completely different product from the classic definition of buttermilk.

6) Cheddar is originally from the town of Cheddar in Somerset. 

Cheddaring is now also the process in which curds are stacked and restacked, resulting in a smooth cheese.

7) In London, penny licks were ice cream served in a small glass.

It was banned because they weren’t properly cleaned.

8) Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry’s, couldn’t really taste, which is why their ice cream often has a lot of texture.

This is founder-centric product development.

9) There was a debate over raw certified milk vs pasteurized milk.

In the end, pasteurized milk won because it was cheaper to produce. This reminded me of the egg refrigeration question, where American eggs are washed and thus need to be kept in the fridge afterwards.

10) 90% of dairy cows in America are the Holstein breed.

These are the quintessential black and white cows that I’ve never seen in real life.

There were a lot of cool random tidbits in this book. I just wish the story was told in a more coherent way.

 

 

Turn Right at Machu Picchu

Turn Right at Machu Picchu

Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

This book is a perfect example of why I like reading books about places after visiting. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it at all had I read it before. Having done the Inca Trail, I could follow along their journey and compare their experience with mine.

1) Hiram Bingham’s grandfather, Hiram Bingham I, was sent to Hawaii as a missionary and founded Punahou School, where Obama graduated from.

History is path dependent.

2) Incan stone walls were built without mortar, and these interlocking stone walls withstood earthquakes much better.

Buildings – ancient and modern – are really an impressive human feat. How do we build things that don’t fall down for hundreds of years?

3) Alberto Fujimori defeated the communist group Shining Path and fought inflation.

I was very intrigued when I first learned about this Japanese president of Peru.

4) There is a lot of confusion around the lost city of the Incas.

The Spanish drove the last Incan king (Sapa Inca) to Vilcabamba. This old Vilcabamba is also called Espiritu Pampa, not to be confused with another Vilcabamba near Vitcos. It’s even more confusing because Bingham tried to make a convincing case that Machu Picchu was Espiritu Pampa.

5) The intihuatana is an Incan stone structure that functioned as a solar clock. 

I vaguely remember seeing this at Machu Picchu. After reading this book, I realized I hadn’t tried to learn much when I was there.

6) The sun doesn’t arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise.

This. It was disappointing to experience “sunrise” there since it kind of just gradually got brighter. Angkor Wat was the same, or maybe we were unlucky with the clouds.

7) Gilbert Grosvenor of National Geographic was a backer of Bingham and made Machu Picchu the cover story in 1913.

One of the author’s conclusions is that even though Bingham was not the first to discover Machu Picchu, he was the one to bring it to the rest of the world.

8) Peru sued Yale to return the items that Bingham had taken from the site.

Karp-Toledo, a former first lady, was one of most vocal figures against Yale.

9) Roald Amundsen was the first to discover the South Pole in 1911.

It must have been a cool time with all these discoveries. It doesn’t happen much anymore – now we just have mysterious plane vanishings.

10) Strikes are serious in Peru, and there was a major one in 1999 when the government tried to build a cable car to Machu Picchu.

I noticed people striking while I was there. I heard it was a teachers’ strike at the time. Googling it now, apparently it lasted for months, and train service to Machu Picchu was stopped for 2 days.

I had low expectations for this book, thinking that it would be really dry (partly because of the uninspiring book cover), but it turned out to be an entertaining mix of history and travelogue. One problem was that the Incan place names throughout were hard to follow, which the author had warned about at the beginning. Otherwise, it was a great way to relive one of the hardest and most memorable weeks of my life.

 

 

Timefulness

Timefulness

Timefulness by Marcia Bjornerud

This book is a quick overview of geology and the history of Earth, served with a side of climate change commentary. Like A Brief History of Time, it was manageable at the start, but as it went deeper into the science, I couldn’t really keep up. You understand 90% of chapter 1, 80% of chapter 2, and it quickly falls apart once you have to put different concepts together.

1) James Hutton discovered a discontinuity between two sequences of rocks at Siccar Point, and this led to the foundational concept of uniformitarianism.

Even though it seems obvious now, the idea that the same geologic processes have been going on for billions of years was groundbreaking (pun).

2) Mary Anning – a fossil collector – probably inspired the “She sells seashells” tongue twister.

Why doesn’t her name start with an S?

3) Global Boundary Stratigraphic Section and Points, or golden spikes, are chosen as international standards for boundaries of geologic stages.

This sounds like a fun trip around the world.

4) Above-ground nuclear testing and fossil fuel burning have both complicated radiocarbon dating. 

The latter is called the Suess effect.

5) The Chicxulub crater was caused by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction and nonfiction. The one common theme is how helpless humans are.

6) Decompression melting is how mantle becomes magma as rocks rise towards the surface.

Even though the temperature is cooling, the decreasing pressure causes the rock to melt.

7) Seafloor spreading is generally faster in the Pacific Ocean compared to the Atlantic Ocean.

This is because of subduction zones where the sea floor gets “slab pulled” back into Earth.

8) More rock has been removed from the Himalayas through erosion than the current size of the mountains.

Paradoxically, erosion decreases the weight of the crust, which means that the mantle flows back underneath and the mountain rises.

9) Oxygen interacted with iron dissolved in the ocean to create iron formations.

After this, free oxygen became available and changed the entire atmosphere during the Great Oxidation Event.

10) The formation of limestone involves combining calcium with carbon dioxide.

It was cool to learn how seashell organisms are part of the carbon cycle.

I was interested enough in geology to read this book, but I don’t think it inspired me to learn more. It was too hard to follow what’s going on and when. The best parts were the illustrations – pictures are indeed worth a thousand words when we’re talking about rocks.

 

 

Under the Midnight Sun

Under the Midnight Sun

Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino

Japanese mystery is a genre that’s been on my list for a while. The tricky part is finding English translations. I had originally wanted to read Miracles of the Namiya Convenience Store since I randomly saw a thumbnail for that movie on a Delta flight. But I couldn’t find an English version, so I researched other books by Keigo Higashino and picked this one. I really enjoyed it despite (or maybe because of) a very convoluted plot. I liked that it’s completely different from the Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie-style mysteries. It’s more about the thoughts and motivations of the characters. I didn’t even really read it with the mindset of trying to figure out who killed whom.

1) “There was a patchwork bag on the desk next to his book, embroidered with the initials ‘RK.'”

With this detail early on, it was pretty obvious how things were ultimately going to end, but the 20-year journey to get there was worth it.

2) “The contraption was a personal computer. If you were to buy it outright in a store it would have cost nearly a million yen.”

I looked it up, and USD to JPY was in the 200s during the 1980s. That’s still a lot of money.

3) “‘What blood type is Ryo?’ ‘AB'” – Tomohiko, Namie

Gave me the chills (spoilers)

4) “‘If I ran, it would just make the rain hit my face harder…. But wouldn’t it reduce the amount of time you were getting rained on?'” – Eriko, Kazunari

Isn’t this one of those age-old myths that I can never remember the real answer to?

5) “Then he dusted on to the magnetic strip of the card…. The filings had formed themselves into a striped pattern along the strip.”

This is such a cool hack. All technologies have loopholes.

6) “‘It’s only the rich families that produce that kind of class. The money comes first. Looks and style follow, every time.'” – Akemi

Money buys some things.

7) “He’d shown it once to Ryo and much to his surprise, Ryo asked to borrow it ‘to show to someone.'”

More chills (more spoilers). I love how the author reveals huge plot points through lowkey conversations.

8) “‘It’s just I have so much extra time sitting at home doing housework. And the market’s really good right now. It’s a lot better than just parking the money in a bank somewhere.'” – Yukiho

Stock trading is indeed one of the funnest activities. That’s why you usually have to pay for it.

9) “‘A cat rescued as a kitten grows up never knowing life without human protection. They’re trusting and easily spoiled. But a cat picked up when it’s already grown – even though they might seem friendly, they never stop being wary. They’ll live with you because you feed them, but they’ll never completely let their guard down.'” – Kazunari

I disagree with the premise that cats seem friendly.

10) “‘Ever heard about the goby and the shrimp?'”

No, but now I have.

This is one of those books that I never wanted to put down, partly because there were so many characters that I would have had no clue what’s happening had I paused for a week. I’m looking forward to reading his other books, or maybe finding another Japanese mystery writer.

Serotonin

Serotonin

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a French book. I wasn’t sure how much I would remember, and it indeed turned out to be very difficult at the beginning. I probably typed 70% of the first chapter verbatim into Google Translate. It also didn’t help that there were tons of bad words and explicit descriptions. They didn’t teach this stuff in high school French. It was probably not the best idea to feed all this data into Google, but at least Google Translate has clearly improved over the years and actually translated sentences instead of translating individual words and combining them into nonsensical phrases.

1) “J’ai quarante-six ans, je m’appelle Florent-Claude Labrouste et je detest mon prenom.”

This reminds me of when I inexplicably chose Jacques as my French name in 5th grade. I was also Simon at some point.

2) “…Je detestais Paris, cette ville infestee de bourgeois ecoresponsables me repugnait, j’etais peut-etre un bourgeois moi aussi mais je n’etais pas ecoresponsable, je roulais en 4×4 diesel – je n’aurais peut-etre pas fait grand-chose de bien dans ma vie, mais au moins j’aurais contribue a detruire la planete.”

Speaking of which, I finally found the recycling chute after living here for a year and a half.

3) “Les Japonais, et meme plus generalement les Asiatiques, tiennent tres mal l’alcool, par suite due mauvais fonctionnement chez eux de l’aldehyde deshydrogenase 2, qui assure la transformation de l’ethanol en acide acetique.”

There is a good amount of racist commentary on Asians, but I do appreciate that his Japanese girlfriend’s name is Yuzu.

4) “Le plus difficile, en realite, dans ma fuite, fut de decouvrir un hotel parisien acceptant les fumeurs.”

Brilliant use of the concept of non-smoking hotel rooms to illustrate how the narrator feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere.

5) “L’amour chez l’homme est donc une fin, un accomplissement, et non pas, comme chez la femme, un debut, une naissance.”

Deep.

6) “La seule difficulte de la vie a l’hotel, c’est qu’il faut sortir quotidiennement de sa chambre – et donc de son lit – pour que la femme de menage puisse faire son travail.”

Once a day is fine, but why at 9am?!

7) “Au bout de deux minutes je me rendis compte que parler me fatiguait encore plus qu’ecouter, c’etaient les relations humaines en general qui me posaient un probleme.”

I like to spin it positively and think that I learn more by listening, but maybe this guy is onto something.

8) “Les annees d’etudes sont les seules annees heureuses, les seules annees ou l’avenir parait ouvert, ou tout parait possible, la vie d’adulte ensuite, la vie professionnelle n’est qu’un lent et progressif enlisement, c’est meme sans doute pour cette raison que les amities de jeunesse, celles qu’on noue pendant ses annees d’etudiant et qui sont au fond les seules amities veritables, ne survivent jamais a l’entree dans la vie adulte, on evite de revoir ses amis de jeunesse pour eviter d’etre contronte aux temoins de ses esperances decues, a l’evidence de son propre ecrasement.”

This hasn’t been true for me, and I hope it never will be.

9) “‘Malheureusement, j’ai pas de wifi…. Ca me fait perdre pas mal de clients, j’ai plein de gens c’est la premiere question qu’ils posent.'” – Aymeric 

1) Where’s the wifi? 2) Where’s the bathroom?

10) “Ce n’est pas l’avenir c’est le passe qui vous tue, qui revient, qui vous taraude and vous mine, et finit effectivement par vous tuer.”

One liner that summarizes the book.

They say Houellebecq predicted the yellow vest. I say he does a great job portraying how it feels to be left behind as someone who is just trying to live their life.

American Gods

American Gods

American Gods by Neil Geiman

This past Christmas, my Reddit Secret Santa gave me two books, along with a bunch of horrible Asian candies that I definitely hadn’t asked for. Both were by Neil Geiman, who is supposedly a very famous writer whom I’d never heard of. American Gods is already a TV show, and Good Omens is about to be a TV show. This is actually a genre that I rarely read – I can’t remember the last time I read a book that I’d put in the same category of action-oriented fiction set in America. Maybe Gone Girls, but they are so different that I don’t mentally connect the two.

1) “He watched people put down bags casually, observed wallets stuffed into back pockets, saw purses put down, unwatched, under chairs. That was when he realized he was no longer in prison.”

That was when I realized I was in America. Even in Singapore, I didn’t feel safe leaving my stuff in public.

2) “The Super-8 motel had gone, torn down: in its place was a Wendy’s. There were more stoplights, unfamiliar storefronts…. Left on Main Street. Past a new tattoo parlor and the Armed Forces Recruitment Center, then the Burger King, and, familiar and unchanged, Olsen’s Drug Store, and at last the yellow-brick facade of Wendell’s Funeral Parlor.”

The quintessential American town. Reminds me of when I’d build cities in Caesar the computer game. Build your wells, reservoirs, temples, warehouses. In modern day America, build your police stations, churches, post offices, Taco Bells.

3) “Shadow walked across the hall. His room was a duplicate of Wednesday’s room, down to the print of a bloody sunset on the wall above the bed. He ordered a cheese and meatball pizza, then he ran the bath, pouring all the motel’s little plastic bottles of shampoo into the water, making it foam.”

The author is amazing at depicting America, all the more impressive given he didn’t move from England until his 30s. This quote perfectly captures the essence of all Holiday Inns.

4) “‘This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is…. The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.'” – Wednesday

Definitely a hyperbole but directionally correct.

5) “Another Town, pop. 300, home of the runner-up to the State Under-12s speed skating championship.”

This doesn’t beat the consolation runner-up trophy in a 4-team competition.

6) “‘I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.'” – Lucy

In a vacuum, humanity must be way overindexing on TV time. What’s the evolutionary benefit?

7) “‘So, yeah, Jesus does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.'” – Jacquel

Nice commentary on religion mixed in with “American gods.”

8) “Las Vegas has become a child’s picture book dream of a city – here a storybook castle, there a sphinx-flanked black pyramid beaming white light into the darkness as a landing beam for UFOs, and everywhere neon oracles and twisting screens predict happiness and good fortune, announce singers and comedians and magicians in residence or on their way, and the lights always flash and beckon and call.”

One day I may learn to like Las Vegas, but that day hasn’t come yet.

9) “‘San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.'” – Wednesday 

Well the author did pick probably the 4 most unique cities in America. Most of the other ones look like carbon copies of one another.

10) “‘The exact center of America is a tiny run-down park, an empty church, a pile of stones, and a derelict hotel.'” – Mr. Nancy 

I looked this up, and it’s real. Added to the list.

I didn’t care much for the plot, especially all the stuff about coin tosses and magic. But I really enjoyed the commentary on America. It was never in your face, but I kept nodding my head every time the author described some aspect of the American identity down to its core. This book is far better for understanding America than all those nonfiction books out there.

Justice

Justice

Justice by Michael Sandel

I saw this book on my friend’s blog and realized it was also a Harvard class. Had I cross-registered, I probably would have seriously considered it. Or maybe that’s only in hindsight. Fairness and ethics didn’t occupy much of my mindshare during college, but more and more I’m learning that life is just the result of countless decisions and policies that all inherently screw over subsets of people. While some of these may have malicious intent, I really believe that by and large there are no right answers – because there is no common definition of “right”. This book talks about the different ways we can go about defining what’s right.

1) In 2009, Pentagon announced that the Purple Heart would only be awarded to soldiers with physical injuries, ruling out PTSD.

This is a great example of how hard it is to be “fair.” Where do you draw the line? What’s considered fair?

2) Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, proposed the idea of the Panopticon – a prison with a central tower where guards can watch over all prisoners without the latter knowing whether they were being watched at any time.

Bentham also suggested that the negative utility of encountering beggars on the street meant that beggars should be brought to workhouses. The author also points out other failures of utilitarianism, such as big tobacco claiming that they are a net gain due to all the taxes they pay. There’s an interesting parallel to the current debates about how Facebook has been a net positive to society despite all the recent scandals.

3) During the oil crisis in 1974, Congress set a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour.

Later on, once the speed limit was lifted, through math magic (faster speed -> time saved -> economic benefit -> tradeoff with # of additional deaths), economists calculated the value of a human life to be $1.54 million. TBT to when there was a chance I’d be an actuary.

4) John Stuart Mill had his own flavor of utilitarianism, which distinguished different levels of pleasures and asserted that we should seek to maximize pleasure.

This form of utilitarianism seems less pure than Bentham’s, but apparently it was on the right side of history, since I’d only ever heard of John Stuart Mill before.

5) The “Cannibal of Rotenburg” ate people who volunteered.

If we valued self-will, is this wrong?

6) The Civil War used a system where those drafted could pay to have other people take their place. This is effectively the same as the volunteer army we have today, where the soldiers are being paid (by taxpayers).

This section comparing different forms of drafts was very interesting. The author lays out the pros and cons of each and points out e.g. that volunteers aren’t really volunteers. It’s a market, and people with less means have fewer alternatives. So is it really fair? Also, should we consider serving a civic duty? If we used a market solution, then why can’t we hire foreigners or private companies? Apparently in 2007, there were more private contractors than U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

7) Kant stressed that we do things as an end in themselves.

It’s a bit hard to describe, but for example, helping others out of compassion is the wrong reason to help others. Helping others is a moral duty and has intrinsic moral value. Also, humanity is an end in itself, so both suicide and murder are wrong.

8) Rawls talked about the societal policies that people would choose behind a veil of ignorance – if no one knew what their place in society would be.

He argues that people would choose a society that tends to redistribute wealth and to enact policies that must somehow benefit the least well off.

9) Aristotle believed that justice is teleological (based on the telos/purpose of the social practice) and honorific (based on the virtues it should honor or award).

It differs from utilitarianism because it focuses instead on the concept of good. It’s also different from Kant/Rawls’ theories that stress intrinsic rights.

10) Justice does not operate at the individual level – every life is in the context of other lives.

This is the author’s final argument, and he cites examples like whether or not modern day Americans need to apologize for slavery, or modern day Germans for the Holocaust. Ultimately, the author says that the only path to justice is to talk and debate publicly.

After reading the book, I watched the first lecture of this class online. It’s laid out almost exactly the same as the first chapter, where the professor asks a series of “would you do a or b given situation x” questions. It looked like a fun class. Sometimes I wish my classes had been like that. The thing about science, or at least college-level science, is that there is nothing to debate.

 

 

Death’s End

Death's End

Death’s End by Cixin Liu

With Death’s End, 3BP becomes the first (?) book series I’ve ever finished other than the legendary A Series of Unfortunate Events. With all the great books and distractions out there, it’s a high bar to invest in a trilogy – but 3BP was definitely worth it. In this third installment, Ken Liu returns as translator, and it’s immediately obvious. It’s so much more readable than Dark Forest. This book also features some of the best (fairytales) and worst (ending) of the whole trilogy.

1) “Life and the world were perhaps ugly, but at the limits of the micro and macro scales, everything was harmonious and beautiful.”

The best way to increase the (life is beautiful) / (life is hard) thought ratio is to think big and think small.

2) “Do you wish to terminate your life? This is your last prompt. For yes, select 4. For no, select 0.”

I can’t even choose between “Save As” and “Don’t Save” when exiting Excel.

3) “‘In my opinion, aesthetics matters the most when you’re buying a star. It’s much better to possess a faraway star that you can see than a nearby star that you can’t.'” – Dr. He

Are stars the next crypto coins? Perfect bubble conditions.

4) “All this was based on a single idea: Tomorrow will be better. This was a relatively new faith, a product of the last few centuries before the Crisis.”

Related: earnings growth, 401K

5) “Cloning raised moral questions, but they mostly troubled those with a moral view influenced by Christianity. The troubles brought about by hibernation, on the other hand, were practical, and affected the entire human race. Once the technology was successfully commercialized, those who could afford it would use it to skip to paradise, while the rest of humanity would have to stay behind in the comparatively depressing present to construct that paradise for them.”

I don’t agree with the premise that cloning is only problematic in the context of Christianity. This line is super out of place, and Christianity never really comes up again. There’s also nothing about gene editing – or maybe I missed something in the books? Anyway, hibernation is an interesting concept. If you could, why wouldn’t you not want to skip to the future if you believed tomorrow would be better?

6) “Life reached an evolutionary milestone when it climbed onto land from the ocean, but those first fish that climbed onto land ceased to be fish. Similarly, when humans truly enter space and are freed from the Earth, they cease to be human.”

I’ve never considered the concept of “Galactic humans” before.

7) “This probability, or degree of deterrence, is an important parameter in deterrence game theory. The degree of deterrence must exceed 80 percent for the deterrer to succeed. But people soon discovered a discouraging fact: If the authority to carry out the threat in the dark forest deterrence is held by humanity as a whole, then the degree of deterrence is close to zero.”

I loved the excerpts from A Past Outside of Time. This one in particular read like a textbook chapter on game theory. Also: get enough people in the room and the only possible outcome is inaction.

8) “Luo Ji stood tall and straight. He looked at the white wall, which he had stared at for more than half a century, for a few more seconds. Then he bowed slightly.”

LOL. Wallfacing needs to be a meme.

9) “‘Food? Everyone, look around: You are surrounded by food, living food.'” – Sophon

Sophon is such a weird character. Why is she portrayed as a tea-serving yet heartlessly lethal Japanese warrior who’s really a robot?! inb4 spinoff.

10) “A cosmopolitan space church was built in near-Earth orbit. Though it was called a church, there was no physical building other than a gigantic cross.” 

I take back what I said above about the lack of references to Christianity. This cross-in-the-sky idea is actually really cool.

There are probably 100 more worthy quotes in this book, but I’ll stop here. One of the most underrated parts of the 3BP series is its social commentary. Yes the science is amazing, but the best parts are about how humanity will react to potential annihilation. Most of the tactics and decisions sound dumb yet completely realistic. How will countries actually work together to fight off an alien attack? I’m highly doubtful that humans can get on the same page. Prestige, power, and saving face will always lead to globally (i.e. for Earth) suboptimal decisions. There’s also a lot of moral commentary. What happens when only the rich can escape Earth? Will you wait for other people at the launchpad or will you take off, killing other people with the engine heat? The value commentary is also great. Do people actually want to live if it means Earth no longer exists? Is it worth anything to be able to explore the universe or should we just stay on Earth and call it a day?

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I’ve never been big into physics. To me, physics is the most difficult topic of all and also the most ambitious because it literally is the study of how the world works. Reading this book made me realize how little I knew – even with two mandatory semesters of physics in college. I’ve heard all these terms before: space time, relativity, quantum mechanics, but wow did I know nothing about them. I can tell that Hawking tried very hard to dumb down the material for the laypeople, but I definitely started to have trouble following about a third of the way in. There are so many interwoven concepts, and sometimes the puzzle pieces turn out to be wrong, and our understanding of the universe(s) would have to be reconstructed from scratch. Between this book, watching meteor showers, and the 3BP series, I suddenly find myself very interested in space again – like when I was little. I still remember when I bought books about all the planets (RIP Pluto), and I actually still have planet wall decorations in my room. What happened?

1) Galileo knew that not everything orbited around the earth when he saw moons orbiting around Jupiter.

Copernicus had proposed the heliocentric model years before, but Aristotle’s geocentric model had been accepted for a long time. I appreciated how this book talked about the wrong conclusions that famous scientists had made throughout their lives. Hawking was (or seemed to be) very transparent about his own mistakes too. Being wrong and revising is the core of science.

2) Modern physics boils down to two main theories: general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

This was the first time I’d built a mental image of relativity and quantum mechanics. General theory of relativity is about gravity and speed of light, while quantum mechanics is about phenomena at an extremely small scale – including concepts like the uncertainty principle. The key challenge now is the reconciliation of these two seemingly conflicting theories.

3) Space time is warped by the mass and energy in it.

Earth moves in a curved orbit because this orbit is actually the “straight” path in curved space.

4) We discovered that the universe is expanding because the waves we detected were red-shifted.

If the universe were expanding, the waves from the stars would be red-shifted. If the universe were contracting, they would be blue-shifted.

5) By itself, the general theory of relativity predicts that all physical theories break down at the beginning of the universe.

This is the singularity. I found it interesting how much Hawking talks about the role of God. According to Wikipedia, Hawking was an atheist, so he was probably posing the hypothetical of a God to prove his point by contradiction.

6) A key part of quantum mechanics is the duality of particles and waves.

This is where I started to lose the plot a bit, so I’m not sure what to say about this supposedly crucial concept.

7) Any theory that obeys both relativity and quantum mechanics must obey the combined symmetry CPT.

This means that the universe must behave the same if we 1) swapped particles with anti-particles or 2) took a mirror image or 3) reversed the direction of time. Quite mindblowing. This is not like assuming independence.

8) Black holes look like they produce radiation, but the particles are actually coming from the event horizon around the edge of the black hole.

I don’t completely get it, but the black hole sucks in the particle while the anti-particle escapes, which makes it look like the black hole is emitting radiation.

9) Microwave background radiation is believed to be the remnants of the Big Bang.

The fact that the radiation is almost exactly the same in all directions suggests the universe overall is very smooth. Galaxies and stars are the result of very minor differences at the beginning of the universe.

10) The anthropic principle basically says that we see the universe as it is because we exist.

Sounds like the physics version of my claim that everything is subjective.

It’s amazing how recent so many of the discoveries are. Almost all the theories in this book were posited within the last century. Sometimes it feels like humanity isn’t making any progress, but I can’t imagine living even a century ago. How different will this world be in 100 years?

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

At the Seattle bookstore where I found There There, I also discovered Magpie Murders. Mystery novels have been growing on me, and this one had good reviews, so I decided to give it a try. The book is split into two distinct yet related murder cases. It reminded of Gone Girl, which (spoilers) also featured a complete 180 midway through. Even though the first half was great, it would have made for a run-of-the-mill English detective story as a standalone, so I liked how the author completely changed the complexion of the book with the second murder case.

1) “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told.”

The author references Agatha Christie a lot – it’s cool to see this from “And Then There Were None.”

2) “But such gossip cannot be confronted. Rumours and malicious gossip are like bindweed. They cannot be cut back, even with the sword of truth.”

There’s an interesting point about how a lot of murder stories take place in villages. In that setting, everyone knows everyone, so every character becomes a suspect. This also works when you put everyone on an island or on a train.

3) “‘There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.'” – Atticus Pund

There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a bug.

4) “And let’s not forget that Clarissa had a key to the front door of Pye Hall. It’s mentioned once – on page 25 – though not again.”

The best thing about the meta mystery is that it gives a perspective into the writing of murder mysteries.

5) “I took out my iPhone and moved away from the front door so that I could get a picture of the whole thing. I didn’t know why I did that, but then why does anyone take photographs ever? We never look at them any more.”

I used to not take pictures, but now I do. It’s true that I almost never look at them, but when I do, it’s really like living that part of my life again.

6) “I held out the packet and suddenly we were friends. That’s one of the only good things about being a smoker these days. You’re part of a persecuted minority.”

Love in a Puff.

7) “‘Oh yes. James Fraser, the dumb blond assistant – that’s me.'” – James Taylor

How do authors create their characters? They’re usually some combination of people they know in real life.

8) “Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need for bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?”

For me, I love how the solutions always make sense in retrospect. Next time I read a murder mystery, I’m going to draw out character maps and really try to figure it out.

9) “He was just so sure that the book was brilliant and you have to ask yourself, if you’re a writer sitting alone in a room, how can you keep going otherwise? It must be awful having that total self belief, only to find that you’ve been wrong all the time.”

One day I’ll summon this confidence to write a book.

10) “Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed?” 

Answer to 8.

Magpie Murders as a murder mystery case was not as thrilling as either of the two Agatha Christie stories I’ve read, but the meta mystery was a really nice twist.

Mastering ‘Metrics

Mastering 'Metrics

Mastering ‘Metrics by Josh Angrist and Jorn-Steffen Pischke

I always tell myself I won’t read economics books, yet here I am again. That said, I consider econometrics to be its own field. The part of economics that I don’t want to read anymore are the theoretical models that overfit past observations and struggle to hold water once the real world no longer fits the model (see: interest rates, economic growth, etc). There’s nothing inherently bad about wrong models. All of science is basically a model that we keep updating as we learn more about how the world works. The problem with economic models is that they are ultimately about human behavior, and there is a weird feedback loop where humans behave a certain way because we think that we behave/should behave/have behaved/will behave a certain way. This agency is in contrast to other sciences where our models are (we think) exogenous to the entity we want to predict or understand. To me, econometrics fits in this latter category despite having the “econ” root in its name. It is more about data science than economic theory, and a lot of the material in this book is eerily relevant to my work. Also eerie is how much of this I’ve forgotten. I’m pretty sure I had learned everything in this book at some point in my life, so it’s great that there’s such a digestible book on econometrics. I wish there were more books like this on other topics that traditionally live in clunky textbooks. The kung fu master theme throughout was a bit much and seemed forced, but it created a lighthearted tone to the book that made it a much more lively read.

1) Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken.”

I loved how the authors used this poem to illustrate that one observation is one observation and you can’t know what would have happened otherwise. Establishing apples-to-apples comparisons is the core challenge in measuring casual effect. It’s also a concept that I think most people should be more mindful of in daily life. For example, there are no real answers to questions like “Is Harvard better than Yale?” A Harvard student only experiences Harvard. Even if they transferred to Yale, they are still biased by having gone to Harvard. Econometrics is about finding ways to answer these questions – via running experiments or leveraging other randomness and assumptions.

2) RAND HIE (Health Insurance Experiment) and a subsequent Oregon study results suggest that insurance coverage increases use of health services but does not improve health.

I’m pretty sure I worked on this Oregon study during my freshman UROP. It’s really crazy that I know some key players in the national healthcare insurance arena. Reminder: healthcare is completely broken in America.

3) Estimated standard error of the sampling mean

Find you someone who can explain this correctly.

4) The building block of regression analysis is finding pairs of people and comparing them.

Again, the key is to find data points that are truly comparable. Regression (and ML) Python functions are abstracted so far away from the core concept that anyone can run a regression and have no idea what it’s actually doing.

5) Omitted variable bias is the difference between short and long regression coefficients.

I had omitted OVB from my memory.

6) Using ln(Y) is useful because then you can interpret coefficients as a percentage change in Y.

Via calculus magic, this approximation works when the percentage change is small.

7) KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) is the largest network of charter schools in America.

I’ve never really paid much attention to the charter/public school debate, so this is the first time I’ve heard of KIPP.

8) Instrumental variable analysis requires 3 main assumptions.

First stage: instrumental variable affects the causal channel of interest; Independence assumption: instruments look randomly assigned; Exclusion restriction: a single causal channel connects the instrumental variable with the outcome

9) If there’s no effect in the reduced form, then the IV estimate is also 0.

This is because the effect is (A on C) / (A on B). If (A on C) is 0, then the effect is 0.

10) Errors in the measurement or reporting of independent variables lead to attenuation bias.

Errors bias the regression estimates toward 0.

These ten points don’t do the book justice, since the book really shines in its long explanations of econometric methodologies. It walks through examples and math in a clear way, without being overly technical or repetitive. Reading this book was like going to school again but having the professor explain every little detail so that you really get it. It was extra interesting because I could think of examples from work to match each topic. The standard at work is to run experiments, but the real challenge is usually in teasing out effects when there is no experiment or when the experiment is wrong. For example, if I only see an effect on iOS, is that because of a specific OS version? This type of question maps to instrumental variable analysis. Even though I’m not calculating estimates with standard errors, the goal is similar: find an apples-to-apples comparison and determine whether there is a real difference.

There There

There There

There There by Tommy Orange

While waiting for a Lyft in a random book store in Seattle, this book – with its title and cover – caught my attention. The next weekend, I went to Grand Canyon and Zion. Besides the scenery, the most amazing part of the trip was the timezones. We kept flipping back and forth between different timezones, and it got to a point where we couldn’t tell what time it was anymore. It also didn’t help that Yelp and Google Maps gave us conflicting information. It turns out that most of Arizona observes Mountain Standard Time, but Navajo Nation, which covers parts of AZ, UT, and NM, observes Mountain Daylight Time, putting it an hour ahead. This was fascinating and made me realize I haven’t really studied anything related to Native Americans since middle school. This topic only really comes up in the context of casinoes. It’s a shame, so it’s time to fix it.

1) “There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted, drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out. It’s called the Indian Head test pattern.”

I’m too young to have seen this firsthand. The imagery is so telling – an Indian head above what looks like a bullseye.

2) “An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside.”

Native American to Asian American : apple to banana

3) “Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere and nowhere.”

The hardhitting commentary in the prologue rains hard on the Thanksgiving parade.

4) “The Drome taught me to look past the first look people give you, find the other one, right behind it. All you gotta do is wait a second longer than you normally do and you can catch it, you can see what they got in mind back there.”

It’s not directly related, but this reminded me of how my immediate reaction when a stranger talks to me on the street is to guard and walk away. That’s sad.

5) “‘We’re going over to where they built that prison. Gonna start from the inside of the cell, which is where we are now, Indian people, that’s where they got us, even though they don’t make it seem like they got us there. We’re gonna work our way out from the inside with a spoon.'” – Jacquie’s mom

I didn’t know about the Indian occupation of Alcatraz. Did I not pay attention during the tour?

6) “‘Roosevelt said, ‘I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of tenth.”” – Two Shoes the bear

I had to fact check this. It’s real news. Puts our current events in perspective.

7) “It stayed as my profile pic until recently, because a few months, even a year, was fine, not abnormal, but after four years it was the socially unacceptable kind of sad.”

A lot of my friends still have grad or college pics as profile pics. It doesn’t seem weird at all. If anything, changing profile pic is weird.

8) “There’s something wrong about all of it. Something about the ever-present phone glow on their faces, or the too-fast way they tap their phones, their gender-fluid fashion choices, their hyper-PC gentle way of being while lacking all social graces and old-world manners and politeness.”

Millenials are the worst.

9) “‘Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think the problem is that they’re jumping.'” – Jacquie

Core issues are hard to solve, so a lot of solutions address the symptoms of the real issues and claim victory. I don’t have a great answer, but it seems to be a recurring theme for humanity. Maybe there is just no such thing as the root cause.

10) “I brought home outdated racist insults from school like it was the 1950s. All Mexican slurs, of course, since people where I grew up don’t know Natives still exist. That’s how much those Oakland hills separate us from Oakland. Those hills bend time.” 

Why are racial slurs so contagious? Why is it so easy to pick up? Seems like the cost of using them is too low.

I typically enjoy multi-threaded stories with different characters coming together. There There is a perfect example, but it was difficult to keep track of who was who. There were too many characters, and they weren’t distinct enough – most struggled from drug use and lack of family stability. Also, chapters spanned generations and switched amongst first, second, and third person voices. Despite the constant context switches, it was still a great book. I learned a lot about Native American contemporary history and culture.

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Such is human nature that people only pay attention when bad things happen. I’ve always known who Anthony Bourdain was but had never watched any of his shows. After he died, I looked up Parts Unknown episodes on Youtube. I can very rarely sit through 30 minute shows online, so when I ended up watching a couple full episodes, I knew there was something special there and decided to read the book that catapulted him to fame.

1) Bourdain started as a dishwasher at the Dreadnaught in Provincetown.

Everyone starts somewhere. My first real paying job was packaging and mailing pharmaceutical drugs.

2) He went to the Culinary Institute of America and got in with connections.

He has a blue-collar image, so I was surprised that he went to a private high school and had a lot of connections to establishments (e.g. CIA, fancy NYC restaurants) that helped him throughout his career.

3) Brunch is usually done by the B-team chefs.

I already knew brunch was bad. This book gave me more supporting evidence. Food deliveries don’t come on the weekends, and the best chefs work Saturday nights. Probably broad generalizations, but I’ll take it.

4) He learned early on that character is more important than skills or resume.

Based on what I’ve seen so far in my short career, this is very true. Most things don’t take geniuses to do, and brand name schools don’t matter much. The #1 factor is whether you care or not.

5) 86 means to get rid of something/someone.

I had to google this. This book makes a lot of references without explanation.

6) Bourdain once failed a job interview because he heard “What do you know about me?” instead of “What do you know about meat?”

He said “Next to nothing.”

7) He moved between restaurants a lot and often brought his people with him.

Not surprising, but it’s refreshing to see someone talk it point-blank.

8) Some kitchen/restaurant terms:

Walk-in/reach-in fridges, mise-en-place, dupes, salamander, xxx-top, buyback

9) Some kitchen/restaurant personnel:

Sous chef, line cook, pastry commis, runner

10) Some knife cuts:

Julienne, brunoise

Reading it now, Kitchen Confidential doesn’t feel that groundbreaking. The “mean” chef is very much a trope now. Maybe it is because of this book that kitchen culture is part of popular culture now. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by his commentary on management. I’m sure managing kitchen staff is a completely different beast, but most of the concepts apply everywhere. How do you fire people? How do you let people do what they do best? His most interesting point was that he always wanted to know everything going on. He would talk to different people about the same incident to get different points of view. Another thing that stood out about this memoir is that almost every restaurant referenced is gone now. It’s a sober reminder how things don’t last forever.

City of Stairs

City of Stairs

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

For all the hype around sophisticated recommendation engines out there, I still find most consumer-facing suggestions completely useless. Part of the problem is that these engines don’t know what to optimize for. Sometimes I want something similar, sometimes I want something totally different. In my opinion, rating-based recommendations don’t work at all. People synthesize too many dimensions into one rating – realistically only one of three options: 3/4/5 stars. So then we could consider other features, but it’s really tough to boil things down to features. For example, all books have a feel to them that’s quite impossible to get until you actually start reading. So, we don’t know the optimization function and we don’t know the input variables.

All this has meant that I’ve had to rely on other means to find new books. One of the most effective ways is the most old fashioned – going to a bookstore. Somehow, no one has been able to replicate or improve on just standing in front of a bookcase and browsing. This time, I used another strategy: r/books. City of Stairs was the July pick for the Reddit book club. I did some due diligence and decided to go for it.

1) “‘This is not as things were; thus this is not how things should be'” – Mulaghesh

I’ve started to interpret every plot line with any modicum of social commentary through the lens of 2018 American politics. My major takeaway is that the themes have been, are, and will always be the same.

2) “I try not to think at all when outdoors, dear. It tends to ruin things so.” – Vohannes

I think about completely different things when I’m inside vs outside. Maybe this is why walking 1:1s feel so weird – I’m talking about things that I generally only think about indoors.

3) “It is so terribly, unbearably rude for him to pass through all these years and come out the same person on the other side.”

Why is there stigma with people not changing and also stigma with people changing?

4) “‘The Restorationists look to the past, Saypur wishes to maintain the present, but no one considers the future.'” – Vohannes

Humans on aggregate probably spend too much energy on the past.

5) “What a pleasant thing it would be to be a knife, always eager to take the path of least resistance, always drawn to the weak points, falling through tendons and skin and rinds like a blade of grass swept downstream.” 

I’d read a book where every chapter is from a different object’s perspective.

6) “‘Coffee refreshes the body. Tea refreshes the soul.'” – Shara

Fake news, but funny.

7) “States are not, in my opinion, composed of structures supporting privilege. Rather, they are composed of structures denying it – in other words, deciding who is not invited to the table.”

The absence of something that has never been there is hard to detect.

8) “Ear of Jukov: an engraved, stone door frame that contains no door. Iron wheels on the base. Speculated that it has a twin, and no matter where the other Ear is, if the doors are operated in the correct manner one can pass through one and come out the other.”

Did they pay royalties to Doreamon?

9) “Photography is a relatively new innovation, less than five years old, but she can already tell she will hate it.”

I was very confused throughout about when this story took place. Some things were “modern”, some weren’t.

10) “Shara now sits on committees that decide who shall be nominated to be committee chairs for other committees; then, after these meetings, she sits on committee meetings to formulate agendas for future meetings; and after these, she attends committee meetings deciding who shall be appointed to appoint appointments to committees.”

Too real, too painful.

Overall, I enjoyed City of Stairs. Unfortunately, since I was borrowing from the SF library and the waitlist was super long, I had to take a two-week break in the middle. That might have contributed to me feeling that the tone of the book was somewhat disjointed. Sometimes, it seemed very serious. Other times, it tried to be funny. For example, I realized halfway in that Mulaghesh was there solely for comic relief. Also, the introductions of some plot points – like the Divinities and Sigrud’s background – were clunky. But the story had enough magic and character to make it a satisfying read.

The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I’m bad about finishing book series, even if I really enjoyed the first book. It mostly comes down to opportunity cost. There are too many great books out there, and I like variety. I’m making an exception for the Three Body Problem. This second installment was quite different from the first. The ideas are still mind-blowing, but there is a completely new set of characters. I also found the tone to be unrecognizable from the first book. This made more sense when I learned that the translator was not Ken Liu. Unfortunately, the writing in The Dark Forest was denser and also more abrupt – I’d say it’s borderline poorly written. That said, the ideas are even more amazingly thought-provoking than the ones from the first book, so I’ll do 20 bullets instead of 10.

1) “The ant continued onward to the next trough, a closed shape: ‘0.’ The path seemed like part of a ‘9,’ but it was a trap. Life needed smoothness, but it also needed direction. One could not always be returning to the point of origin.”

I loved the opening scene, which depicted a key conversation from an ant’s point of view while it crawled on a gravestone, tracing out the etched numbers and characters. It felt like the opening credits of a movie, and I’m sure it actually will be.

2) “Human communication organs are but an evolutionary deficiency, a necessary compensation for the fact that your brains can’t emit strong thought waves. This is one of your biological weaknesses. Direct display of thought is a superior, more efficient form of communication.”

On the whole, it’s got to be disadvantageous for humans to not have transparent thoughts. I liked how this “deficiency” was set up to be the only real weapon humans had against the Trisolaris race.

3) “Inequality of survival is the worst sort of inequality, and the people and countries left behind will never just sit and wait for death while others have a way out.”

I don’t want to witness how low humanity would go if we had to choose who got to escape Earth and survive. One of the more questionable plot points of the book is the enduring presence of the UN. I have no faith that an institution like that could exist if the human race were at risk.

4) “How are we supposed to know whether or not you have already started work?”

All companies should have a Wallfacer program where a select group of employees are allowed to do whatever they want and use as many resources as they claim to need without justification.

5) “Perhaps the outside world really was something akin to a quantum state, and did not exist unless he observed it.”

That’s how I feel when I go outside after staying in for a day.

6) “First, take a look at the final essay question, then start the exam from the top, so that as you work on the exam, your subconscious will be thinking over the essay question, like a background process in a computer.”

Throughout my schooling years, I purposely never read the essay question until I got to it cuz I didn’t want my mind to be distracted during the multiple choice section.

7) “‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.'” – Fitzroy

The problem is that it’s impossible to define what is impossible.

8) “‘This is the most critical decision in the entire master strategy. If it’s a misstep, the space fleet will be built atop a mistaken foundation, and we might waste a century or two.'” – Zhang Beihai

I’m starting to think that the extreme path dependency of most things in life means that very few decisions are truly reversible without impact.

9) “‘What? The number of people makes a difference? I thought all of you here were respectable gentlemen who prize human rights above all. What’s the difference between one life and 8.2 million?'” – Rey Diaz

The all-or-nothing mindset of decision making will become more unsustainable over time, especially as machines making probabilistic decisions take over.

10) “The project’s most influential component was called the Human Diary, a Web site that was set up to allow as many people as possible to record their lifetimes in the form of text and images from their everyday lives, to become part of the data of civilization. The Human Diary Web site eventually grew to have more than two billion users and formed the largest-ever body of information on the Internet.”

Facebook???

11) “‘Electricity? There’s electricity everywhere.'” – the nurse

I really hope we get there in 200 years.

12) “English, formerly the most widely used language, and Chinese, spoken by the largest population, had blended with each other without distinction to become the world’s most powerful language.”

This is a very realistic scenario. To an extent, this is already true.

13) “‘Cars all ran on the ground in your day. I can’t even imagine how dangerous that was.'” – the officer

Self driving flying cars are almost a certainty – but how will we screw it up?

14) “Despite this era’s technological development, they had still not managed to overcome the stagnation of fundamental theory, so Natural Selection’s permissions transfer was done via means Zhang Beihai was familiar with: three factor retina, fingerprint, and passphrase authentication.”

If passwords were still a thing in 200 years, I think humanity would have failed.

15) “‘Children, a man from two centuries ago is still able to teach university physics today.'” – Ding Yi

Although depressing, it’s interesting to think about what technologies will be basically the same in 200 year, and which ones will be completely irrelevant. Or even the concept of university.

16) “In the roughly two seconds it took to cover that distance, the computer actually dropped its alert from level two back to level three, concluding that the fragment wasn’t actually a physical object due to the fact that its motion was impossible under aerospace mechanics.”

The thing with alerts, and in general most of ML, is that it’s all based on what has happened. The next step change is being able to predict things that have never happened before.

17) “Exhibiting a cool and precise intelligence in its continuous attacks, it solved the traveling salesman problem in local regions with perfect accuracy, hardly ever retracing its path.”

I found this subtle reference funny, all while humanity was getting destroyed.

18) “Every day at his residence, Hines watched news that was broadcast especially for him, accompanied by lifelike three-dimensional images.”

Fake news has, is, will always exist.

19) “No, no. Don’t say where we are! Once we know where we are, then the world becomes as narrow as a map. When we don’t know, the world feels unlimited.”

Google Maps is the chaperone who saves your life by sucking all the fun out of it.

20) “He at once felt both the power and the powerlessness of time: Maybe only a thin layer of sand had been deposited over the course of two centuries, but the long geologic age when humans were not present had produced the mountain that now housed these graves.”

You can dig through the first layer of sand with your bare hands, but you can quickly get to the rocks that you can’t even drill through.

This trilogy is just on another level. The science is great, but the real meat is its commentary on humanity. We can blow up planets. We can enforce mental beliefs. We can build underground cities. But we still can’t get over which country gets to greet the aliens first, or who gets to live and who has to die. The last 5th of this book was very good and saves the book from some disappointing Murakami-copycat plot lines early on. Looking forward to finishing the trilogy.

 

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is a bunch of classics blended together:

– Moby Dick, for its nautical setting and overly detailed descriptions of animals

– Catcher in the Rye, for its young protagonist in search of something

– Little Prince, for its domestication of wild animals

– Catch-22, for its banter

That said, it’s distinct and very much a classic on its own.

1) “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality?”

Life is too real to not read fiction.

2) “Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out.”

Are we really doing animals a favor by satisfying all their needs in a confined space? Counter argument: Humans who have all they need in one place can’t seem to resist the urge to travel everywhere.

3) “I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics…. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

I’d argue that being agnostic is not choosing doubt.

4) “Socially inferior animals are the ones that make the most strenuous, resourceful efforts to get to know their keepers.”

Very interesting insight that the omega animals lowest on the social ladder are the stars of the show. Not sure if this is real, but it’s believable.

5) “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”

To my surprise, the first part of the story – before the survival saga – focuses a lot on religion. I especially enjoyed the Hindu dimension, which I don’t get often since most discussions in western literature focus on Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

6) “The camel at the zoo was unfazed, but that straw broke Father’s back.”

I loled.

7) “The dorado did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession.”

Fish fact of the day. Also that dorados = mahi mahi.

8) “I will confess that I caught one of his arms with the gaff and used his flesh as bait. I will further confess that, driven by the extremity of my need and the madness to which it pushed me, I ate some of his flesh.”

Life of Pi was one of the more graphic/violent books I’ve read, which was a total surprise since I thought it was made into a kids movie.

9) “In this respect, the island was Gandhian: it resisted by not resisting. Every wave vanished into the island without a clash, with only a little frothing and foaming.”

The flesh-eating island was my favorite part of the journey. It was creepy and mysterious, and – in retrospect – a perfect metaphor for how dangerous it is to be complacent.

10) “‘Isn’t telling about something – using words, English or Japanese – already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?'” – Pi

Yes – everything is subjective.

Pi’s journey on the lifeboat dragged on for too long, but writing this review has crystallized how much I enjoyed the book’s exploration of grand ideas. Most of all, the ending was gold. What’s real and what’s not? What’s a story and what’s life?

 

Grocery

Grocery

Grocery by Michael Ruhlman

One of my friends recently mentioned how supermarkets are great tourist destinations. It’s true. Supermarkets show you how locals live. What do they eat? What’s more expensive and what’s less expensive? How do people pay? Supermarkets are for everyone, so they offer what the average person needs and wants. This revelation, combined with the increasingly large role supermarkets play in my life now that I actually have to procure dinner everyday, prompted me to read about the grocery business. It brought back memories of my year consulting for various grocery chains. Some facts I had known already, some I had never really thought about. This book was about the people who run supermarkets, and it was interesting to look at the shelf from their point of view, versus the assortment tool we built that made data-driven decisions. They go out and befriend suppliers. We crunch sales data and optimize metrics through #machinelearning. In some ways, grocery looks like an industry stuck in the past, but if I walked into a supermarket from 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be able to get half of what I purchase nowadays.

1) Walmart has 26% of the US grocery market.

This is not a TIL, but it’s hard to comprehend. In major cities, it feels like Whole Foods is taking over the world. Walmart is almost 20x. I’d say that the only time I’ve bought groceries at Walmart – in Alaska, it was quite enjoyable.

2) A&P is considered the first American supermarket.

I’d never heard of A&P, the Walmart before Walmart. Few cool facts: advent of the private label to build trust; product shelving revolutionized by tin cans and cardbox; large size increasing purchasing power

3) When the Whole Foods store in Austin was flooded in 1981, customers used their own money to restore it.

Also heard on the How I Built This episode on Whole Foods. The author gives John Mackay a lot of credit for getting farmers to grow organic and says he has singlehandedly changed how America eats. If we’re talking about organic food, then I agree. Organic is almost the default now (biased I know).

4) Haagen Dazs started in Brooklyn and was named to sound Danish.

Mattus was a Polish Jew, and he knew that people in Brooklyn discriminated against a lot of ethnicities, but not the Danes. On an unrelated note: I haven’t had Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream for probably two years, and it’s still the best mass-produced ice cream.

5) Other than COGS and labor, credit card fees are the largest expense for Heinen’s.

Never feel bad churning.

6) Refined grain is basically sugar.

Refined grain means the germ and bran are removed, leaving pure starch. So Frosted Flakes = sugar + sugar. If there’s one thing I’ll take away from this book, it’s to not eat processed food. That’s really hard at 11PM though.

7) Canola oil stands for “Canada” and “ola.”

I have a giant container of canola oil from Costco that I will never finish. I always thought canola was just another plant. It’s not easy to be a smart consumer when companies are either obfuscating facts or overcharging you for your health consciousness.

8) Private label products are made by other companies and marketed as the grocery store’s brand.

How had I assumed that grocery chains actually manufactured private label products themselves? It makes no sense.

9) Iceberg lettuce are called such because they were covered with crushed ice while being transported to the Midwest on trains in the 1920s.

I can’t tell my lettuces apart, probably because I hate them all.

10) Supermarkets have produce available all year long by sourcing from different places throughout the year.

Or, they can source from suppliers who themselves work with farms all over the world. Apparently Driscoll sources from east coast, west coast, Mexico, and even Argentina and Chile. I’m guessing they source locally in the summer. The raspberries at work have been amazing.

After years of dining plan meals and team dinners and mediocre room service, supermarkets are making a comeback in my life. Even with eating out often and ordering Blue Apron, I still get a lot of value out of supermarkets. That’s partly because they’ve evolved. The best example is the take out sushi at Whole Foods, which is actually high quality and very convenient. Or, as this book pointed out, the frozen section at Trader Joe’s. At a normal supermarket, I don’t even bother with the frozen section, but at Trader Joe’s, I only go to the frozen section. Next up: Amazon Go.

When Money Destroys Nations

When Money Destroys Nations

When Money Destroys Nations by Philip Haslam

I keep telling myself not to read economics books because their claims are usually either not supported by data at all or are supported by cherry-picked “studies.” Anyone who has written a paper of any sort knows that they can back up any claim by quote some random study. In this case, I was mostly interested in reading stories of people living through hyperinflation, which were surprisingly difficult to find. Ultimately, this book did a mediocre job of portraying the human side of hyperinflation; instead, it is mostly an onslaught against money printing. While it wasn’t what I was looking for, it was refreshing to see someone bash quantitative easing, which is beloved by mainstream economists. It made me think about where all this extra money has gone. Is that why every startup raises billions now?

1) Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, declared independence from Britain unilaterally in 1965 when it was ruled by a white government.

Britain was trying to enforce majority rule (African rule) before granting independence. Because the Rhodesian government didn’t comply, the United Nations imposed sanctions.

2) Under inflation, exporters do much better than importers.

Until I worked in Singapore, I never really paid attention to exchange rates outside of vacations here and there. With a business, even a 5% increase in import costs can wipe out everything. On the other hand, export companies benefit from paying in local currency and getting paid in foreign currency.

3) Printing money is the politically easy solution.

It’s like in Monopoly. When someone runs out of money, everyone gets a payout from the bank, and the game continues. No one loses and no one gets mad. Of course this author’s point is that money printing is actually bad. It leads to inflation. Again, where has the $3 trillion gone? There’s been minimal inflation for the past decade. Maybe so much of our assets is electronic money anyway that this $3 trillion doesn’t even register.

4) Over 50% of US government spending is on social security and medicare/medicaid.

The author attributes Zimbabwe’s currency woes ultimately to rampant government spending. Needing more money to pay for the spending, the government resorted to printing money rather than cutting spending. This number puts into perspective what the government’s role is. Should it be spending over 50% of its money on welfare? If so, is printing money an okay solution as long as it gets the job done?

5) Suicide Gorge in South Africa is a series of waterfalls that you can jump down.

Sounds fun – but in this case, it’s used as a metaphor for hyperinflation. Once it starts, it can only go in one direction.

6) At the beginning, money supply rises faster than prices. Once it flips, inflation goes out of control.

As with much of textbook macroeconomics, expectation is key. Perception is reality. If people think prices will go up, then prices will go up.

7) The Zimbabwe government tried to implement price and currency controls. 

It was illegal for people to hold foreign currency. Even exporters who earned in foreign currencies had to sell 25% of their earnings to the government in exchange for local Zimbabwe dollars. The government also set up a Price Control Commission to keep prices low in stores, which meant the businesses were losing money.

8) Utilities like electricity and water became very cheap.

Because the billing systems could not keep up with hyperflation, electricity and water became essentially free. But this also meant that there was no money to maintain the services. People then resorted to getting water straight from the ground.

9) Fuel coupons became the new defacto currency.

Redan Petroleum brilliantly gave out fuel coupons in exchange for foreign currency. These coupons circumvented currency controls. Because people were using it as currency, no one was redeeming the coupons. This meant the company made a lot of money. It eventually morphed into a quasi-bank when it started issuing more fuel coupons than it had in actual fuel. If everyone had redeemed at the same time, it would have been like a bank run.

10) The U.S. struck a deal with Middle East countries to sell oil exclusively in USD in exchange for weapons and protection.

As more US dollars were printed under the gold standard, it became obvious that the system was unsustainable. The author points out how the Vietnam war and welfare expenses were contributing factors. After the collapse of the gold standard, the U.S. needed a way to keep the USD as the #1 currency. This arrangement with the oil states resulted in “petrodollars.” Everyone needed oil, so everyone needed USD.

This book was not well written. It reminded me of a high school thesis paper before peer review. One downfall of reading classics and famous authors is that I forget how difficult writing is (except when I write these list-style posts and still struggle). Anyway, I still learned a lot, and there’s a reason why I chose economics as my major. As for a concrete suggestion, I really wish the author had followed the lives of a few characters and narrated their stories in more depth.

Pachinko

Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Yappie starter pack: ramen, Harvard sweatshirt, EDM, red envelopes, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Pachinko. This book is very hyped by Asian Americans, and it’s easy to see why. The ingredients are all there: Japan, Korea, immigrants, generational drama. The first half of the book is an epic tragedy with arranged marriages, WWII, and poverty; the second half comprises of many short episodes focusing on specific characters. I found the first half a bit slow but I really enjoyed the second half, which – through the lens of different characters – explored a wide range of topics including even investment banking. By the end, I was able to see the magic that tied everything together across a century and four generations.

1) “‘What? I don’t understand you, you stupid Korean. Why can’t you speak Japanese? All of the Emperor’s loyal subjects are supposed to know how to speak Japanese! Aren’t you a loyal subject?'” – the short one

Birthplace has way too much weight in life.

2) “‘You’re a generous person, but it can be dangerous for us. If people think we have extra, our house will be robbed.'” – Yoseb

The risk of something bad happening is a huge obstacle to helping others. I guess that’s why there are middlemen charities that serve as quasi insurance (or one could argue charities have economies of scale).

3) “The officer believed this – the Japanese government was a fair and reasonable one.”

So many things in history – or the present – look ridiculous, but when we don’t understand how one individual brain works, how can we expect to understand how a group of brains work together?

4) “Every day, for every one boat that heads out to Korea filled with idiots wanting to go home, two boats filled with refugees come back because there’s nothing to eat there.”

The book follows a North Korean family, which adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story. Several times, the protagonists thought about going home to Korea, but the situation in North Korea was so bad that it was better for them to stay in Japan despite discrimination. I’m not sure if they could have gone to the south instead. I think they could have, but it didn’t make sense since the south wasn’t home, and they would have faced another form of discrimination for having lived in Japan.

5) “At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woolen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.”

xxxx ( x ) xxxx

6) “Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference.”

The ability to learn is the most important skill.

7) “He felt lucky to be at a university and not in most other settings, where the person in charge was always right.”

Maybe this was the case in mid-20th century Japan. Based on my experience, people question authority the least at schools. That said, this probably shows how lucky I’ve been more than anything.

8) “Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.”

Pachinko is the perfect metaphor for Koreans who chose to stay in Japan.

9) “‘A woman’s lot is to suffer.'” – Yangjin

While this concept is nothing original, I noticed how the author repeatedly juxtaposed the female characters’ suffering with the male characters’ solution of choice: leaving – including taking their own lives.

10) “‘There’s nothing fucking worse than knowing that you’re just like everybody else. What a messed-up, lousy existence. And in this great country of Japan – the birthplace of all my fancy ancestors – everyone, everyone wants to be like everyone else. That’s why it is such a safe place to live, but it’s also a dinosaur village. It’s extinct, pal…. Japan is not fucked because it lost the war or did bad things. Japan is fucked because there is no more war, and in peacetime everyone actually wants to be mediocre and is terrified of being different. The other thing is that the elite Japanese want to be English and white. That’s pathetic, delusional, and merits another discussion entirely.'” – Kazu

After pages of subtle criticism of Japan, we have this scathing diatribe.

As my high school English teachers would say, show don’t tell. There’s a lot of telling in Pachinko, but it works. There are too many characters to adequately show who they are, so we get a lot of their thoughts explicitly. Especially in the second half, there isn’t much character development. Instead, the author gives snapshots of their lives that summarize their values. There’s definitely an opportunity for a sequel focusing on the post-war characters, but I’d rather this book stay its own independent story. It’s more than good enough.

Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

For years, I’ve been searching for a Christianity for Dummies book. As I got older, it become more apparent that I needed to have – for better or worse – some basic knowledge of Christianity to understand the world I live in. I looked into reading the Bible, but basically everyone online advised against it. So I tried to find other books which all appeared to be too dense or largely focused on politics with a side dish of religion. One day I stumbled upon this book on Amazon, and the title was too good to be true. I was initially confused since I had always associated C.S. Lewis with Chronicles of Narnia – was this fiction? As it turned it, this book was perfect. It is deliberately about the fundamentals of Christianity, without diving into the differences amongst sects which often make Christianity impossible to keep track of. I thoroughly enjoyed processing Lewis’ arguments in support of Christianity and attempting to identify the strawman or the logical flaw. To be honest, I often lost track as I mostly gave him the benefit of the doubt.

1) “In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.”

Somewhere along the way, “Christian” became synonymous with “good”. While this particular case seems innocuous, it is really dangerous to establish equivalence between an adjective describing a group of people and an adjective with an inherently positive or negative connotation. It’s easy to do since humans prefer shortcuts. It takes more energy, but I believe the next unlock in human thinking is to think in probability distributions.

2) “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”

C.S. Lewis treats these two statements as facts, without which none of his arguments make sense. He does spend a good amount of time showing them to be true. The main point here is that this Law of Nature is an independent entity, not a result of any other forces or merely a representation of our instincts. Furthermore, unlike e.g. the law of gravity, humans do not have to obey the Law of Nature. What I found fascinating here is that he fully believes in science and Christianity simultaneously. It reminded me of a late night chat I had at Oxford, when my friend argued that math and science are the only way to find God.

3) “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head’, how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? These would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”

I’m quite a strong believer that the truth is just what most people believe, as scary as that sounds. For Lewis, there is a Right answer.

4) “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

This is a very interesting insight that’s applicable to politics. Some people believe we have to keep going to remain progressive, but if you believe we’re going down the wrong path, it’s progressive to revert. For some, a step backward is a step forward.

5) “Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

A big hurdle to get across is why evil exists if God were good. I’m not sure I got over the hump, but I’m now aware of it.

6) “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself.”

This did not age well.

7) “This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.”

Another key piece of the puzzle is believing that Jesus is God in human form, here to save us from ourselves. This was the weakest link in the string of arguments that lead to Christianity. I need to do a #deepdive.

8) “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.”

There’s the concept of precondition. A bad person doing a slightly good thing is better than a good person doing a good thing.

9) “There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule.”

This book is largely a coherent thesis interspersed with shocking statements like these that threaten to undermine the entire argument.

10) “Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You.'”

The ultimate punchline is that every Christian is part of God and must surrender to God to truly gain self.

This book was very enlightening. While I’m not totally convinced by Christianity, I now have a better sense of its general framework, and it’s a framework that I’m okay with. Now that I have the structure, it’s about putting the pieces together. Do I believe that there is an independent Law of Nature? Do I believe that evil is necessary? Do I believe that God took human form in Jesus? Do I believe that we are all part of God?

Little Victories

Little Victories

Little Victories by Jason Gay

Twitter has always been great and is better than ever. The #1 reason is news. After that, journalist tweets. A long time ago, I saw this tweet: “There’s a guy in this coffee shop sitting at a table, not on his phone, not on a laptop, just drinking coffee, like a psychopath.” Later on, when I found out he wrote a book, I knew I had to read it.

1) “Let me be the ten thousandth person to point out that the house you grew up in does not resemble the house you visit as an adult.”

I appreciate that my parents haven’t turned my room into storage. Even though it looks the same, it feels so different. It’s like going to my own archeological site.

2) “More friends does mean that you will also spend a third of your salary on birthday presents and go to a lot of birthday dinners at loud restaurants where no one can hear anything, but I have come to believe this is a fair trade-off.”

I also appreciate that most of my friends understand deadweight loss and have stopped giving each other presents. Presence >> presents.

3) “No activity on the planet besides talking about real estate wastes as much time and creates more turbulent feelings of personal insecurity than trying to be cool.”

Does everyone talk about housing because they’ve stopped trying to be cool? Are we trading one evil for another?

4) “Your flight is being called and you’re stuck in line at the airport newsstand behind someone taking a half hour to buy breath mints and The Economist. Situations like that, people tend to exhale loudly, as if they’re getting a physical in a doctor’s office. You know that exhale. It’s the you-have-to-be-kidding-me exhale.”

Always go to the airport early. You can waste time there rather than wasting time at home – unless it’s a 6am flight, in which case you’ve already made too many mistakes.

5) “I wish I’d gotten married earlier, I really do. I didn’t need those five extra years of microwave chicken tenders and watching SportsCenter in the morning.”

Interesting point of view that I rarely hear. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how Facebook has dwindled down to two use cases: engagement announcements and meme tagging.

6) “At is best, travel is going somewhere else to find home.”

By now, I have enough data points to conclude that the two best parts of traveling are booking the tickets and plopping down on my bed at the end.

7) “Realizing that you’re never actually going to play tennis in Rome, so there’s no need to fly your tennis racket across the Atlantic, with an entire kit of tennis wear.”

This is me in a month. I won’t heed this advice.

8) “Walk right up to the boss and make eye contact, shake hands, and depart like you’re Nicolas Cage walking away from an exploding van. Leave without saying goodbye to anybody, and be back in your bed watching Downtown Abbey on Amazon by 8:45PM.”

Any gathering where you don’t have to say goodbye is not worth going to. Added to list of life philosophies.

9) “A Thanksgiving paradox: you will spend your entire childhood trying to get to the adult table and then all of your adult life trying to get back to the kids’ table.”

I think I’ve always known that the kids table is superior.

10) “Even-numbered dinners invariably become gatherings of couples, and here’s what’s interesting about a dinner that’s exclusively couples: zero.”

3 is a great hangout number. No one likes the middle seat in the back anyway.

This book is basically witty commentary on random things that happen in life. Little victories are the best type of victory. Life is marginal, so it only makes sense to make the little things better everyday.

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book shows up on r/books all the time. Everyone says it’s the saddest book, so of course I have to read it. People aren’t lying.

1) “He kept telling me to rilax and that gets me skared because it always means its gonna hert.”

“Just a little pinch” always feels much more than a little pinch. Side note: I recently did an unconscious bias training where they talked about reading words that are completely misspelled. This book is a great example.

2) “And she said mabey they got no rite to make me smart because if god wantid me to be smart he would have made me born that way.”

The notion that one can’t change his/her own life is extremely frustrating.

3) “The more intelligent you become the more problems you’ll have.”

The author wrote a sad story to prove this quote.

4) “I don’t see how if they don’t know what it is, or where it is – how they know how much of it you’ve got.”

The portrayal of Charlie’s rising intelligence told through his progress reports is very well executed. He starts asking why, then points out inconsistencies, and finally becomes self-conscious.

5) “Now I understand one of the most important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.”

And it continues after college, everyday.

6) “‘He’s just an ordinary man trying to do a great man’s work, while the great men are all busy making bombs.'” – Burt

This book is very harsh on professors and academia in general. Professors are driven by grants and reputations, and results are more important than anything. The criticism has aged well.

7) “The idea seems to be: use an expression only as long as it doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”

BIG DATA. DEEP LEARNING.

8) “How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes – how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence.”

Attitude towards mental health needs to be the next complete societal shift. It’s been 50 years since this book was published. The attitude has been stagnant, but the issues have not been.

9) “Every part of me is attuned to the work. I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night – in the moments before I pass off into sleep – ideas explode into my head like fireworks. There is no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem.”

Solving a problem in the shower is probably the pinnacle of human intelligence.

10) “Its easy to have frends if you let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of frends where I go.”

Best ending I can remember.

The book is a must-read. It explores so many important topics. What does it mean to be smart? Why do we look down upon retarded people? I’m amazed that this was written 50 years ago. I wouldn’t have questioned if this came out in 2018. These are obviously timeless questions. Science and humans have a long way to go.

Evicted

Evicted

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Per the go-somewhere-read-about-it rule, I was trying to find a book about San Francisco. While there are an infinite number of books on startups / big tech, none of them really focus on the city’s character. What I kept coming back to was the housing situation. Other than tech, housing – or the lack thereof – is the defining feature of present day SF. How did we end up with blocks of million-dollar apartments with homeless people sleeping outside the front door? I don’t know the facts of the housing crisis, and I definitely don’t know how to solve it. For me, the expensive housing part is inevitable. Yes, based on the limited data I’ve looked at, SF (and the bay area) is not building enough new homes, but sky high property prices are unavoidable for job meccas. Ultimately, plenty of people are willing to pay these prices. So, to me, the more pressing problem is homelessness. Many cities are super expensive but do not have such an egregious homelessness problem. I wanted to learn more about how homelessness happens, and reading this book was a start.

1) Between 2009 and 2011, 1 in 8 renters in Milwaukee were forced to move at least once.

Even though this was during the “Great Recession”, this number is still crazy high and not just specific to Milwaukee. Housing is a basic need. Once people are evicted, how many layers of safety net are there before they end up on the streets?

2) Every year, $6 billion worth of power is stolen in America.

When people can barely make rent, they have to choose between not having electricity or stealing it.

3) The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made housing discrimination illegal.

This was only 50 years ago. We’ve come so far yet we’re still so far. It’s also not just race. Renters have to lie about not having kids so that landlords won’t find someone else.

4) Knowing that eviction is inevitable, people would stop paying rent to save money for the next place.

The thing that stood out the most in this book was the vicious cycle that evictees enter. Once you get evicted, it becomes harder to find a place because landlords want clean records. Stability is gone because you have to spend time looking for a new place, so you may miss a welfare appointment, which means you get your benefits cut. And now you don’t have money to pay rent, and it keeps going.

5) Blacks had higher rents than whites at similar housing as late as the 1960s.

Discrimination (overt or subtle) meant that the poor did not necessarily pay lower rent. Rents in slums were high because the people there had nowhere else to go. Even today, there is a de facto price floor, and the worst housing is not much cheaper than decent housing.

6) In Milwaukee, 70% of tenants called to eviction court did not show up.

75% were black, and of these, 75% were women. The author put it succinctly: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

7) Landlords cannot garnish the first $1K. 

Reading up more on this, it looks like landlords can garnish 25% of pay but must leave the tenant with at least 30x the minimal federal hourly wage.

8) Renters with housing vouchers pay up to 30% of their income to rent, and the program covers the rest.

Housing vouchers were an attempt at a free market solution. Often times, landlords would overcharge because they know the tenant is only paying a portion. This means that the program is basically enriching landlords. It’s telling that the National Association of Realtors supports the voucher program (vs. public housing projects). In 2013, 17% of poor renters received a government subsidy, vs 15% who lived in public housing.

9) The poor don’t identify with the poor, and thus collective action doesn’t happen.

This is my interpretation of the author’s take, and I agree. I think this is a major reason why economic divides are stronger than racial or other types of divides. People organize groups to address specific racial issues, but who is going to join a club for poor people?

10) In housing courts, 90% of landlords are represented by an attorney. 10% of tenants are.

Maybe lawyers are a necessary evil.

This book follows several people – both landlords and tenants – to tell a story about how evictions work. It was really eye-opening and scary to see how vulnerable people are to the system. For the most part, everyone is just trying to live their lives. Tenants want to pay rent when they can, and landlords don’t want to evict tenants unless it’s necessary. But people always fall through the cracks, whether it’s bad luck, drugs, or the poor design of the system. Then it’s up to family, friends, and the government to save them, even though a family death, or an unexpected baby, or a lost welfare check may have caused the eviction in the first place. Homelessness is a symptom that one or many parts of this machine has malfunctioned.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things

The Hard Thing about Hard Things

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

THTHT is a coin flip sequence and also a book that many claim to be the best business book out there. Either my Twitter is an a16z echo chamber, or I’m not in “business” enough to understand, or this is not the best business book out there, or the best business book out there is not great. Most likely, I’m not the target audience. I don’t need to know how to fire execs. That said, it was fun to think about all his advice in the context of Lyft.

1) Netscape developed Javascript and SSL.

I remember using Netscape when I first learned how to use computers. Seems like people don’t give it enough credit. Yahoo too.

2) Resetting guidance destroys credibility with investors.

I’ve never understood why companies give really high guidance. Does it all come down to finding the right balance between “high growth” and risk of missing target? It seems like the dominant strategy is to set low expectations, but I can see how consistently beating estimates is not a good look either. The only conclusion: market is irrational.

3) Ask “What Are We Not Doing?”

There’s already so much to do that there is no time to think about what we’re not doing. It’s even more difficult in a data-driven culture where everything has to be prioritized based on evidence.

4) Calculus is determinate. Statistics is indeterminate.

If we had to choose one as the foundational way of thinking, which one makes more sense? I’d argue that probability and statistics are heavily under-indexed in our education system.

5) Amount of communication is inversely proportional to amount of trust.

Establishing trust is very important because it makes all future communication easier.

6) For execs, hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.

MAX(MAX) not MAX(MIN). Also maybe partly why some execs appear to be very incompetent. They may be excellent at the thing they need to be excellent at but terrible otherwise.

7) In good organizations, people believe that good work will lead to good outcomes for the company and for themselves.

This is a good one-line summary of what a good company means. Everything else is secondary.

8) Training is very high leverage.

Suppose a training can lead to a 1% improvement in performance, an investment by a manager of 10 reports leads to 200 hours of work over the next year. Most training feels very useless, but when you put it this way, it’s hard to argue against.

9) Big company execs are typically interrupt-driven, and startup execs need to be more proactive.

In a startup, if you don’t make it happen, it won’t happen.

10) The Peter Principle states that people get promoted until they reach a level when they become incompetent.

Seems odd at first, but it totally makes sense.

While I didn’t really like this book (more like a series of long-form articles), I absolutely agree with the premise, or what I think is the premise. Things are hard, and there’s no right answer. I very much believe that anything worth doing is hard, and if I find something to be easy, I’m probably doing it wrong. High quality work is hard. The important thing is to care and to put in the work.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

It’s difficult to do a write-up for Agatha Christie books. They are so short and so good but not really quotable. It probably makes sense that nothing really stands out, since otherwise it’d be too obvious how the murder happened. I’m a bit mad at myself that I once again failed to figure it out. But there’s a reason why her books are classics.

1) “There were three waiting for him and a telegram. His eyebrows rose a little at the sight of the telegram. It was unexpected.”

How are modern murder mysteries set up? If technology has killed anything, it’s the premise for murder mysteries. What if Adnan had Find My Friends on?

2) “‘You will be sufficiently amiable to place in my compartment a bottle of mineral water and a large glass of orange juice.'” – Princess Dragomiroff

How do people learn to talk like this?

3) “‘That is the act of a man driven almost crazy with a frenzied hate – it suggests rather the Latin temperament. Or else it suggests, as our friend the chef de train insisted – a woman.'” – M. Bouc

This book was clearly written a long time ago.

4) “The doctor watched the proceedings attentively. The metal began to glow. Suddenly he saw faint indications of letters. Words formed themselves slowly – words of fire.”

I don’t understand what this was. The paper was burned, and then letters appeared when it was burned again?

5) “‘Shall we put it that I don’t care very much for Americans, sir?'” – the valet

The hate on America is real. I guess she’s British after all.

6) “‘He shifted the chewing gum deftly.”

I like how chewing gum is a symbol for Americans. Speaking of which, I forgot chewing gum was a thing.

7) “‘Before I ask myself, “Where did this man vanish to?” I ask myself, “Did such a man really exist?”‘” – Poirot

Before I ask myself, why do these numbers not make sense, I ask myself, did we log it?

8) “‘Why, last evening we went into Belgrade one way and out the other.'” – Mrs Hubbard

I need an app that tells me which direction to sit in to face the right way.

9) “M Bouc, meanwhile, seizing upon the one tangible thing his friend had mentioned, was sorting through the passports.”

What I do in escape rooms when I have no clue what to do: keep solving a clue that someone else has already solved.

10) “‘If you confront anyone who has lied with the truth, he will usually admit it – often out of sheer surprise. It is only necessary to guess right to produce your effect.'” – Poirot

I don’t really agree with this.

I’m a sucker for anything that starts with a group, and people gradually get eliminated. Whether it’s Survivor, or the Genius, or Hunger Games, or Westing Game from middle school. This book isn’t as good as And Then There Were None, but that’s a high bar. Now I’m a bit tempted to try reading Sherlock Holmes again.

The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is an amazingly well written book. The use of words is so intricate that it changed my mind about English as an expressive language. I had to look up a word almost every other page, but once I looked up these SAT words that I had known the definitions of ten years ago, they always perfectly described the situation. The writing style is also unique, especially the way the author omits quotes when characters are speaking to one another. Somehow, I was never confused about who was talking to whom. On top of all this, the plot is intriguing and well-paced. The end got a bit too Kafkaesque. It’s not bad per se, but I had just read The Trial and The Karamazov Brothers, so I was a bit tired of psychological interrogations. Nonetheless, given the level of the writing and the resonance of Asian American themes, this is definitely one of my all-time favorite books.

1) “She was a poor person, I was her poor child, and no one asks poor people if they want war.”

It still strikes me that the U.S. has fought wars in countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam – and there are a lot of people today who lived through those wars. For me, these are mostly just vacation spots. What will the Middle East be like in a generation? Were these wars a bigger deal at the time than the wars we have now?

2) “My mother was native, my father was foreign, and strangers and acquaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood, spitting on me and calling me bastard, although sometimes, for variety, they called me bastard before they spit on me.”

What a great run-on sentence.

3) “I had an abiding respect for the professionalism of career prostitutes, who wore their dishonesty more openly than lawyers, both of whom bill by the hour.”

Hatred of lawyers is universal. There must be a startup idea somewhere.

4) “So the most just solution is simply for us to return to the situation where I offer you four thousand dollars for ninety-two visa, since you should not even have ninety-two visas or four thousand dollars to begin with.”

This is why I feel like once you’re in a powerful position, you’re basically forced to be bribed even if you don’t want to.

5) “Over the next few days, we wept and we waited. Sometimes, for variety, we waited and we wept.”

This is a great sentence structure. That I will steal.

6) “We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese.”

Shots fired. I like fish sauce. I like cheese.

7) “I finally got myself to that wall, and when those marines reached down and grabbed my hand and pulled me up, I damn near cried again…. I was never so ashamed in my life, but I was also never so goddamn glad to be an American, either.”

This is how I feel when I have to go through customs, and I can go to the Global Entry line. Actually, there is no shame.

8) “One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual.”

Pain is really hard to describe. The 1-10 scale is almost completely useless. It’s only useful for comparing one person’s current pain to his/her past pain. I love when I make a weird analogy about how something hurts, and other people get it. But we’ll never know if everyone feels the same pain. For example, do everyone’s feet hurt when they walk? Yes?

9) “Every paranoid person is right at least once, said the tall sergeant. When he dies.”

The ultimate I-told-you-so is not worth being paranoid.

10) “While nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom.”

It’s strange that HCM isn’t discussed much when people talk about communism. Or maybe it’s just telling.

There were a ton of other great quotes. The entire book was quote-worthy. There have been a lot of good books by Asian American writers in the past couple years. I’m hoping there will be more, especially from this guy.

Steak

steak

Steak by Mark Schatzker

Due to the mediocre food at work, I’ve started cooking dinner more often. Although this typically entails boiling dumplings and microwaving frozen chicken tenders, I actually do make steak sometimes. It hasn’t been easy though. I always forget to defrost ahead of time. The outside is always burned before the middle cooks at all. And I have to open the balcony doors to let out the smoke. But it’s all worth it if I can make good steak. So far, my efforts have been decent and have exceeded my expectations, but there is clear room for improvement. I’ve wanted to learn more about steak for a while now, and there’s no better time for this book.

1) Tenderloin is filet mignon.

Technically, filet mignon is only the tip of the tenderloin, but people use the terms interchangeably. Does anyone want to live in the filet mignon?

2) USDA grade is mostly based on marbling.

The assumption is that the more marbling, the better tasting the beef. However, the author spends most of the book debating whether this is true (and concludes no).

3) Modern cattle industry is based on feeding cows corn and grain because this makes cows finish fast.

Antibiotics are added to the feed so the cattle can handle the food.

4) Nazis tried to bring back the extinct aurochs through breeding.

Aurochs were found in cave paintings and believed to be the best cattle.

5) Certified Angus Beef doesn’t have to come from Angus cattle.

The Angus breed is native to Scotland. In America, cattle can be classified as Certified Angus Beef if they are 51% black and meet a list of other criteria unrelated to genetics.

6) Service a la russe is the format of dining where dishes are eaten sequentially.

This rings a bell. Maybe I’ve written about it before.

7) Eating four-legged animals was banned in Japan for a thousand years before 1868.

My favorite meal thus far is still the Kobe beef I had in 2014. Hopefully this will change in the future. Maybe Kobe beef at another restaurant (or Matsusaka beef, which is apparently even better).

8) Eating too much alfalfa can cause alfalfa bloat, and ranchers in Argentina would stab the cattle with a knife to release the gas.

Imagine the smell.

9) Veal comes from young male calves.

I’d always thought that veal came from another animal. I had never taken the time to think about what animal it could be.

10) Consuming too much lean meat is dangerous for humans.

In particular, eating only rabbit meat can kill people because the fat ratio is so low.

This guy is living the dream, traveling the world to find the best beef. Naturally, he also makes cringeworthy comments about how he’s scared his daughter would watch him choke to death on a bad piece of steak. All in all, despite noticeably getting hungry while reading, I enjoyed this book a lot and I’m more motivated now to cook better steak (starting with properly defrosting).

11/22/63

112263

11/22/63 by Stephen King

When It came out, I realized I had never read a Stephen King book. I looked and saw It was over 1000 pages. It was too much commitment for an author I wasn’t familiar with. So I browsed through his other books and was surprised by this one about JFK’s assassination since I thought he only wrote horror books. 11/22/63 was a bit less intimidating at about 800 pages, but I’d say it was still way too long. The plot was decent, except it dragged on and on.

1) “My cautious college-bound don’t-take-a-chancers had an irritating tendency to fall back on the passive voice.”

Other than the 1-3-1 (intro, 3 paragraphs, conclusion) structure, active/passive voice was probably the most agonizing part of high school English. Rather than correcting essays, teachers should procure a bunch of corporate emails and have the students rewrite all of them.

2) “‘State of Maine’s years away on that, buddy. The other forty-eight, too.'” – Al

It’s crazy that Hawaii hasn’t even been a state for 60 years. Even crazier that America isn’t 250 years old. Only 10x my lifetime so far.

3) “That won’t happen, I told myself. I won’t let it happen. Like Hillary Clinton said in 2008, I’m in it to win it. Except, of course, she had lost.”

King makes a lot of Shillary references in the book. All the more ironic in 2017.

4) “The opening night begins to seem like an actual possibility instead of a foolish dream. Improv falls away. So does the horseplay, and although jokes remain, the laughter that greets them has a nervous energy that was missing before.”

Tech week is always an engrossing experience.

5) “There were two doors and three signs. MEN was neatly stenciled over one door, LADIES over the other. The third sign was an arrow on a stick. It pointed toward the brush-covered slope behind the station. It said COLORED.”

I wonder if I’ll one day look back on today’s gender neutral bathrooms the same way I read this sentence.

6) “The simple truth was that I didn’t like Dallas, and eight weeks of hard study was enough to make me believe there was a lot not to like.”

There’s indeed not much to like in Dallas. You know when the top attraction is JFK’s assassination location.

7) “Coach Borman looked at the orange juice for twenty minutes because the can said CONCENTRATE.”

Added to short list of on-demand jokes.

8) “This was one night in a small town, one of those burgs off the main road that nobody cares about much except for the people who live there. And that’s okay, because they care.”

Every time I go back to Wakefield, it feels like its own little world.

9) “‘You make pennies selling their newspapers; they make dollars selling your sweat.'” – Lee

Capitalism at its finest.

10) “Never underestimate the American bourgeoisie’s capacity to embrace fascism under the name of populism. Or the power of television.”

50 years later, as real as ever.
I don’t understand why this book has rave reviews. It’s probably because it’s Stephen King. I liked the portrayal of 1960s America in the beginning, and the political statements throughout were unintentionally ironic. Otherwise, it was just a mildly entertaining story with an interesting premise. Or maybe I projected onto the book my dislike of the concept of being stuck in the past.

The King Never Smiles

The King Never Smiles

The King Never Smiles by Paul Handley

It’s been a very busy start to the new job. I wrapped up this book during onboarding week but haven’t had a chance to do a writeup until Christmas holidays. Things are getting better though, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep up regularly. As for this book, I’m playing catchup for all the countries I visited last year in Asia. It’s been tough to find books on these places. Most are either travel guides or very dry-looking historical walkthroughs. Maybe the market for contemporary narratives on specific Asian countries is just too small. Add on the fact that most of the books that fit these criteria are written by western professors/journalists (including this one), and it’s very slim pickings if I want an authentic, well-research portrayal of, say, modern Cambodia. That said, the whole premise of this book is that a local author wouldn’t have been able to tell the truth. So I’ll take what I can – I’m sure this won’t be the last book I read about the Thai monarchy, at the very least to understand both sides of the story.

1) The past decade of Thai politics has been centered around Bhumibol’s succession.

The author’s central thesis is that the elite class has the real power in Thailand, and their goal is to put in place a monarch they can control. Between the monarchy, the army, and a small group of elites, the monarchy has the least power and serves mostly as a figurehead.

2) Under Thailand’s lese-majeste law, people can be put in jail for 3-15 years for insulting royalty.

From what I’ve seen inside and outside of Asia, Thailand has some of the best PR in the world. It’s mostly associated with beaches, cheap food, massage, but then there’s a law like this.

3) Bhumibol’s birthday is Father’s Day, and Queen Sirikit’s birthday is Mother’s Day.

Having grown up in Hong Kong and America – places where government leaders are constantly ridiculed, it’s hard to imagine a population that reveres its leader.

4) The combination of Hinduism and Buddhism strengthens the king’s claim to legitimacy.

I don’t think the author made a great argument here, and I also don’t understand religious concepts very well. His hypothesis is that in Hinduism, one’s greatness comes from blood. In Buddhism, it comes from merit. Apparently, in Thailand, the king is legitimized because he had obviously achieved great things in a previous life and was thus born into royalty. OK.

5) Zomia is a region covering parts of Southeast Asia and India whose people remain largely ungoverned.

The designation seems a bit superfluous, but the concept of ungoverned people is under-discussed – probably because discussion would lead to governance.

6) The Ayutthaya kingdom and the early Bangkok kingdom (ancestors of the ruling dynasty today) used a sakdina point system. For example, testimonies were weighed by the person’s points.

China is rumored to implement a social credit system, and if I had to bet based on my experience in Beijing, people won’t be opposed. And at its core, it’s really not that different from other systems of merit score keeping like education and income.

7) Bhumibol ascended to the throne when his brother was shot in the head in 1946.

I wonder if mysteries like this could still happen today, or are we too technologically advanced? Yes, the truth is what people believe, so I guess it’s a moot point.

8) Bhumibol built his image through Royal Projects trips to rural Thailand.

I remember watching a glowing documentary on a Thai Airways flight that showed the king solving irrigation problems in the countryside. By the way, Thai Airways is solid.

9) Thaksin dominated Thai politics in the mid-2000s by winning over the rural population. 

His rise led to the yellow shirt-red shirt divide. He’s also another prominent example of rich businessmen who appeal to the poor. I really don’t understand how this concept works.

10) Princess Sirindhorn is popular amongst the Thai people but probably never seriously had a chance to become the monarch.

This saga reads like a movie plot.

The king’s influence was real. When he passed away, my coworkers on Thai projects had days off, and every Thai person I knew on Facebook posted or updated their profile pictures. During my visits to Thailand last year – the year of mourning, there were huge portraits of Bhumibol everywhere.  We’ll see what happens in Thai politics over the next few years. From an economic perspective, Thailand seems to punch below its weight for now. I’m very bullish on SE Asia as a region, and Thailand needs to step up if it doesn’t want to be overshadowed by its neighbors.

 

Walkable City

Walkable City

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Urban planning is fascinating. It’s also more relevant than ever for me as I’ve been visiting a lot of cities around the world and recently had to choose a new city to work in. But reading books on urban planning is dangerous. In most social science books, the text alternates between diatribe against the people who don’t get it and a litany of paper citations. This one was honestly no different, but the points were well made. One qualm I had was that the author often cited international examples (e.g. Amsterdam) to prove his points, but I’m not sure American cities are worse than the global average. There are a lot of horrifically designed metropolises in the world. While the book is obviously focused on the US, the author could have provided much more color by exploring some negative international examples as well.

1) A 1-point increase in Walk Score corresponds to a $500 – $3000  increase in real estate value.

There’s no way this relationship is linear or at all comparable across different cities, but I’ve noticed that the walk score is surprisingly prominent on listings.

2) In the mid 1970s, 1 in 10 Americans were obese. Now, 1 in 3 are.

My first instinct was that this is some type of measurement bias. If not, that’s unreal.

3) LEED buildings and Priuses both mask the larger problem, that the location of the building is the most important variable.

Saving the trees but not the forest.

4) Induced demand is the phenomenon that more roads lead to more cars and don’t reduce congestion.

Similarly, if you try to make roads safer by making the lanes wider, people just drive faster.

5) The Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul used to be a highway.

This was seriously my favorite part of Seoul (which otherwise is massively disappointing.) I can’t imagine the whole thing as a highway. It’s a really great example of how roads kill living space.

6) Granny flats are secondary units on a given property.

It’s a tough sell. I can’t see Americans adopting this en masse given the the prevailing NIMBY sentiments. If it’s for family members, many homes have extra rooms already. The market for strangers is kind of more in the Airbnb space now (although the goals are very different).

7) In 2011, SF implemented a pilot program that adjusted parking rates on certain streets to see how it affected parking usage.

The report is legit, and this program must be the dream of data-driven urban planners.

8) Road diet is when four lanes are reduced to three lanes, with the middle for left turns.

I’m always apprehensive when I’m driving past these or using them.

9) When Sweden switched from driving on the left side to the right side in 1967, fatalities dropped 17%.

I had listened to a 99% invisible episode on this “H-Day”. Nice to see it referenced here. Again, nudging people to be more careful by introducing dangerous situations actually works.

10) The current accepted practice is to not plant too many of the same trees in a row because the city then risks losing all the trees to a specific disease.

Although the author argues against this practice, it really shows how much thinking needs to go into building a city, including where to plant trees, how many to plant, what types of trees to plant, etc.

I’m very biased towards making cities walkable. I don’t ever want to own a car, and this drastically cuts down the list of US cities I can realistically live in. I only consider cities where people can walk or take public transportation. However, Uber/Lyft is starting to really open up more options, and unfortunately ride hailing is glaringly missing from this book. Uber/Lyft has probably been the single biggest change to urban living in the past few decades, and they introduce a whole host of new challenges. I get the sense that there are more cars on city streets now, as people substitute walking/transit with ride hailing. Early studies  are coming out now about their impact, and I expect a book soon. But, by that time, maybe we’d have self driving cars.

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Everyone – including Obama and Zuckerberg – recommends this book, and it exceeded expectations. This turned out to be one of my favorite books ever, and definitely one of the most mind-blowing books. Also noteworthy is the translation. It reads so well that it’s hard to imagine it had been written originally in Chinese.

1) “‘One time, during a political study session, I announced that China should cease to be a separate country and join the USSR as a member republic. That way, international communism would be further strengthened. How naive I was!'” – Cheng

Democracy, capitalism, socialism, communism – these concepts are so new in the grand scheme of things. And if you zoom out and look at the human race as a whole, all the ideological fighting seems so inconsequential.

2) “‘During these five experiments, the mass of the two balls never changed. In terms of their locations, as long as we’re using the frame of reference of the tabletop, there was also no change. The velocity of the white ball striking the black ball also remained basically the same throughout. Thus, the transfer of momentum between the two balls didn’t change. Therefore, in all five experiments, the result was the black ball being driven into the pocket.'” – Wang

This book, unlike any other I’ve read, explains life in a clear scientific manner, and it’s great.

3) “The explosive development of technology was analogous to the growth of cancer cells, and the results would be identical: the exhaustion of all sources of nourishment, the destruction of organs, and the final death of the host body.”

The technology-will-kill-us-all rhetoric is gaining steam. I think it ultimately comes down to people rejecting change. Every time I hear it, I think back to the SAT essay prompt. Those exam writers were prescient.

4) “‘Civilization can only develop in the mild climate of Stable Eras. Most of the time, humankind must collectively dehydrate and be stored. When a long Stable Era arrives, they collectively revive through rehydration. Then they proceed to build and produce.'” – King Wen

The slow, methodical revelation of the workings of the Trisolaris world is amazing.

5) “‘I’m saying that there’s always someone behind things that don’t seem to have an explanation.'” – Shi Qiang

Yes, there is always a reason. Perhaps in the form of a consultant.

6) “Others have already sent their messages out into space. It’s dangerous if extraterrestrials only hear their voices. We should speak up as well. Only then will they get a complete picture of human society. It’s not possible to get the truth by only listening to one side.”

One of the saddest things about humanity is that if there were extraterrestrials, people would seek validation to prove that their way of thinking is correct.

7) “‘If you drew a line, I could always draw another line that would divide it into the golden ratio: 1.618.'” – Wei Cheng

Next time I have to give my desired superpower.

8) “‘Now, listen to me. Output, you turn around and look at Input 1 and Input 2. If they both raise black flags, you raise a black flag as well. Under all other circumstances, you raise the white flag.'” – Von Neumann

This chapter on the construction of an army into a computer is now my favorite chapter of all time, surpassing Chapter 7 of Great Gatsby.

9) “The slices near the top moved faster than the slices near the bottom, and the ship spread open like a deck of cards.”

I wish I were good enough at physics to verify this.

10) “‘Humans took more than a hundred thousand Earth years to progress from the Hunter-Gatherer Age to the Agricultural Age. To get from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age took a few thousand Earth years. But to go from Industrial Age to the Atomic Age took only two hundred Earth years. Thereafter, in only a few Earth decades, they entered the Information Age.'” – the science consul

Notwithstanding the assumption of montonic progress, this is why I’m optimistic about our future.

I typically don’t like sci-fi, but this book was really about seeing the world through the principles of foundational physics. The two highlights were the juxtaposition of human psychology with science, and the crafting of the Trisolaris world. The last fifth became a bit over the top, and it just seemed like the author had to tie up some loose ends and set up for the sequel. Still, the plot is real, and the translation by Ken Liu is spot on.

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim

In the past two years, I’ve listened to a lot more podcasts. Serial started things off, and it’s been getting out of control. I’m listening to something 90% of my time in transit, and I fall asleep to podcasts almost every night. A few months ago, I heard about this book on Partially Derivative, and I was intrigued that someone would write a book about devops, especially a fiction book. There was no doubt that I’d check this out.

1) “‘When will you be in the office? I’d like to meet as soon as possible.'” – Head of HR

Crushing the dreams of WFH.

2) “Something seems wrong in a world where half the email messages sent are urgent.” (and on a related note: “‘Maybe we make another field called ‘extremely urgent?'”)

I’m glad that the “Mark as Important” function was practically unused at my company. Ironically, the only emails ever tagged important were IT emails about upgrades.

3) “First, you take an urgent date-driven project, where the shipment date cannot be delayed because of external commitments made to Wall Street or customers. Then you add a bunch of developers who use up all the time in the schedule, leaving no time for testing or operations deployment. And because no one is willing to slip the deployment date, everyone after Development has to take outrageous and unacceptable shortcuts to hit the date.”

I’ve never worked with separate Dev and Ops teams, but this is work in a nutshell. Someone makes a promise. Things go wrong. Duct tape then right out the door.

4) “‘I need you to help create the solution. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem.'” – Bill

Work life 101.

5) “‘We also have all the calls going into the service desk, whether it’s requests for something new or asking to fix something. But that list will be incomplete, too, because so many people in the business just go to their favorite IT person. All that work is completely off the books.'” – Patty

I’m guilty of this, and IT is really a thankless job.

6) “‘Every time that we let Brent fix something that none of us can replicate, Brent gets a little smarter, and the entire system gets dumber.'” – Bill

Siloed knowledge is toxic to any team.

7) “‘I’m concerned that we no longer have sufficient version control – we’ve gotten so sloppy about keeping track of version numbers of the entire release. Each time they fix something, they’re usually breaking something else. So, they’re sending single files over instead of the entire package.'” – William

The way we work is fundamentally broken. No matter what we’re working on, we should have version control.

8) “‘It’s harder than ever to convince the business to do the right thing. They’re like kids in a candy store. They read in an airline magazine that they can manage their whole supply chain in the cloud for $499 per year, and suddenly that’s the main company initiative.'” – Chris

To the cloud!

9) “‘Any improvement not made at the constraint is just an illusion.'” – Erik

Interesting point that I hadn’t really thought about before.

10) “‘Features are always a gamble. If you’re lucky, ten percent will get the desired benefits. So the faster you can get those features to market and test them, the better off you’ll be.'” – Erik

Let’s see if this is true.

The premise of this book is amazing, and it’s especially relevant in light of the Equifax fiasco. It seems incredible that such a large company can make such terrible mistakes, but it’s probably more incredible that we don’t see even more disasters. IT is hard and more important than ever. Unfortunately, the story gets a bit stale in the second half, and the introduction of Erik as a character ruins the whole story. Still, I definitely recommend this to everyone, especially those outside of IT. The author understands the struggles of modern day work, and I enjoyed the sense of validation.

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review. It took me forever to get through this book, and I couldn’t summon enough activation energy to actually write this blog until now. This classic is definitely a long one, and parts of it are very dense. I’ve also been busy with work, travel, and moving back to America, so I often had to take weeks of break. Especially at the beginning, this meant I completely forgot all the characters and had to use Sparknotes. Russian names are difficult to remember, and the fact that everyone had two or three names didn’t help.

1) “Indeed, I always feel when I meet people that I am lower than all, and that they all take me for a buffoon. So I say, ‘Let me really play the buffoon. I am not afraid of your opinion, for you are every one of you worse than I am.’ That is why I am a buffoon.” – Fyodor Pavlovitch

As the counselor to the president would say, get off your high-horse cavalry.

2) “‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with any one of two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom.'” – The Elder

What is it that makes one donate to faceless organizations but run away from homeless people on the streets?

3) “‘It is only by recognizing his wrong-doing as a son of Christian society – that is, of the Church – that he recognizes his sin against society – that is, against the Church. So that it is only against the Church, and not against the State, the the criminal of today can recognize that he has sinned.'” – The Elder

As I always say, anything that requires faith – which is pretty much every social construct – is a form of religion.

4) “For as soon as I say to those enemies, ‘No, I’m not a Christian, and I curse my true God,’ then at once, by God’s high judgment, I become immediately and specially anathema accursed, and am cut off from the Holy Church, exactly as though I were a heathen, so that at that very instant, not only when I say it aloud, but when I think of saying it, before a quarter of a second has passed, I am cut off.'” – Fyodor Pavlovitch

The number of quality passages on religion in this book = high.

5) “‘Brother, let me ask one thing more: has any man a right to look at other men and decide which is worthy to live?'” – Alyosha

Deep.

6) “‘For sin is sweet; all abuse it, but all men live in it, only others do it on the sly, and I openly.'” – the old man

Don’t judge because you sin differently – some random Twitter profile

7) “‘You know, dear boy, there was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented.'” – Ivan

Another great one-liner on religion.

8) “The craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, ‘Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!'” – the Grand Inquisitor

Reading Sapiens before this provides such great context from a very different viewpoint.

9) “‘If dogs could reason and criticize us they’d be sure to find just as much that would be funny to them, if not far more, in the social relations of men, their masters – far more, indeed.'” – Kolya

People love dogs because they appear to live simple lives.

10) “‘What is meant by founding a city or a state? What do they do? Did they go and each lay a brick, do you suppose?'” – Kolya

Since I’m in interview mode, I’d like to say this is an ill defined question and must be clarified.

All in all, The Brothers Karamazov has a great story arc, with surprising plot twists and a lot of long passages about religion. There are many distinct characters who are caricatures of the ideas they represent. I get the feeling that this book will hold up for a long time.

The Weather Man

The Weather Man

The Weather Man by Sam Hayes

I started 2017 with the goal to donate $1 to a crowdfunding project every day. It turned out to be very difficult. I tried multiple platforms and even looked through topics I’m not interested in. There was still a dearth of good-looking projects. Maybe this is why it’s better to dump millions into one idea. This book was one of the last donations I made – although it was effectively just buying the Kindle version.

1) “People wake up to you every fucking morning. If you aren’t making their day, you’re not worth their time.” – Harvey

Back when I watched CBS News before going to school, the weather segment was always the highlight. The weather reporters really do have an outsize impact on people’s days.

2) “You can always try to be anything you want to be, because at worst, failing means you are given a decent home printed in a day by the government and fed decently healthy food until you are old and not that gray. The safety net is so large there’s little you can do to miss it. We are left to figure out exactly what we most want out of our lives and live them.”

This story takes place 60 years in the future. The context is that America has emerged from WWIII, and – at least in America – most societal problems have been solved. I’m quite sure this will not be the case in 2076.

3) “But happiness is a heavy word. It’s held in such high esteem, and when you find a little of it you soon wonder, ‘Wait, so…is that it? This is it, right? Is this the thing we’re all going for? Do I have it? Did I have it? Do I need more of it? Is it already gone?'”

If you consciously debate whether you’re happy or not, you’re not.

4) “She used to go to Cubs games at the baseball museum and sometimes they had ‘rain delays,’ where you would just wait at the field for hours until it stopped.”

Rain delays are ridiculous. Controlling the weather will get political, but it doesn’t sound like an unsolved technical challenge.

5) “‘Happiness is a choice. We all know that. I choose it every day.'” – President Powers

Classic victim blaming.

6) “‘A thousand miles away from anybody – nobody to see it – those things are still crashing together in the dark, all cold and restless. It’s like they’re not doing this for show, you know? They really don’t give a shit if anyone’s watching.'” – Adam

Watching the ocean at night really puts humanity in perspective.

7) “‘FOMO is part of the problem'” – Adam

I should have stopped reading at this point, but I was too far into the book.

8) “‘I like change. Well, I hate change, but I really hate not to change.'” – Stella

I couldn’t agree more.

9) “One day they tried to get bored but only ended up laughing at how hard it was; it was the hardest thing they’d tried to do yet.”

Something that I don’t appreciate enough – on a macro level, I haven’t been bored for many years.

10) “While plenty of countries around the world have extremely loose borders, none of those countries are safe for Americans, leaving most of us nowhere to go.”

This sentence is logically fine but something is off…

While I’m impressed by people who can write books – especially fiction books, reading this one made me appreciate great writers. This book has a good premise and story, but the execution is quite poor. The characters are bland. The chapters are disjointed. And there were a lot of typos. I’m going back to the classics.

 

The Trial

The Trial

The Trial by Franz Kafka

It’s finally time to read Kafka.

1) “‘Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me…in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, is to be burned unread. Yours, Franz Kafka.'”

Kafka told his friend Max Brod to burn all his work. But he didn’t and now we know who Kafka is.

2) “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”

In the prologue, the translator talks about how this first sentence was tricky to translate – particularly “slander” and “without having done anything wrong” since it sets the premise for the entire story.

3) “K. knew there was a slight risk someone might say later that he hadn’t been able to take a joke.”

That awkward moment when you either choose to be serious or go along with the joke, but you don’t know if it’s actually a joke.

4) “Such long reports surely can’t be totally meaningless.”

Wrong.

5) “Everything was unchanged, just as he had found it the previous evening when he opened the door.”

One of the most disturbing moments of the book.

6) “The only proper approach is to learn to accept existing conditions. Even if it were possible to improve specific details – which, however, is merely an absurd superstition – one would have at best achieved something for future cases, while in the process damaging oneself immeasurably by having attracted the attention of an always vengeful bureaucracy.”

There are too many situations where it’s not worth the risk to speak up.

7) “‘That’s a poor combination. Justice must remain at rest, otherwise the scales sway and no just judgment is possible.'” – K.

Not sure what literary device this is, but it’s a good one.

8) “‘Those are the law court offices. Didn’t you know there were law court offices here? There are law court offices in practically every attic, why shouldn’t they be here too?'” – the painter

Another disturbing moment when K realizes he’s trapped in the “legal system” and can’t escape.

9) “The defendants are simply the most attractive. It can’t be guilt that makes them attractive, for – at least as a lawyer I must maintain this – they can’t all be guilty, nor can it be the coming punishment that renders them attractive in advance, for not all of them will be punished; it must be a result, then, of the proceedings being brought against them, which somehow adheres to them. Of course some are even more attractive than others.” – the lawyer

The most haunting idea is that K is assumed to be innocent, but it doesn’t change anything. He keeps on being prosecuted and at some point drives the prosecution himself by hiring lawyers. Does it even matter if he’s guilty?

10) “‘The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.'” – the priest

What is justice? What is law?

The Trial is very psychologically disturbing because it’s so real. What would I do if a court accused me for no reason and I could never be proven innocent?

 

Sapiens

Sapiens

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

My friend gave me this a kindle version of this book for Christmas. I had heard about it before and wanted to read it. I got even more interested after listening to an a16z podcast that interviewed the author. It’s one of the few podcasts that have expanded my thinking box.

1) Some trivia facts:

13.8 billion years ago – Big Bang

4.5 billion – Earth was formed

2.5 million – Evolution of the genus Homo

200,000 – Homo Sapiens evolves in East Africa

70,000 – Cognitive Revolution (beginning of “history”)

12,000 – Agriculture Revolution

500 – Scientific Revolution

More than anything else, these numbers show that life does go on.

2) Until 10,000 years ago, the earth was home to multiple species of humans at the same time.

In retrospect, this is obvious, but if you’d asked me true/false, I would have said false.

3) The thing that set Homo Sapiens apart was the ability to think of things that do not exist.

Culture, imagined order, religion, companies, nations, human rights – everything followed.

4) The average farmer led a harder life than the average forager.

The author claims the Agricultural Revolution is the biggest fraud in history. He has an interesting argument. Essentially, farming allowed us to multiply but our quality of life decreased. From an evolution standpoint, it was a success. Later on, he draws a parallel with pigs and chickens, which – by this metric – have become some of the most successful species.

5) Quipus were recording devices used in the Andes that stored information using knots on cords with different colors.

The Spanish phased them out because they did not want to rely on the locals.

6) One of the reasons why American slavery chose Africa was the African immunity to malaria and yellow fever.

There are surely a lot of other reasons, but this one stood out because a supposedly superior trait backfired.

7) Equality and individual freedom are contradicting concepts.

Equality can only be achieved by limiting the freedom of the rich. This book gets fairly political in the last third, and I agree with almost all of it.

8) Religion asks us to believe in something, while money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

All of modern life is based on faith. Religion, nations, money.

9) Magellan died before he made it back to Spain.

Fake news.

10) The Industrial Revolution was all about finding new ways to convert energy.

Up until then, humans and animals served as the only ways to convert the energy from plants.

 

This is one of my favorite nonfictions. I’m typically wary of social science books, but this one was a really great overview of how humans got to where we are now. It puts everything in perspective. Nothing should be surprising. We’re just a dot in history. No election result/war/religion is out of the question. The current framework is so young, especially this concept of globalization and international collaboration. Should we really expect countries to cooperate on solving problems? A lot of the countries we have today didn’t even exist 200 years ago. The concept of countries didn’t exist a few thousand years ago. All of the concepts in the book are best summarized in my head with one question – isn’t the concept of retirement savings ridiculous? We’re trusting some imaginary corporate entity to pay us an amount, which isn’t even backed by actual paper money, in 50 years. Who knows what humans will be in 50 years?

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

This book is ubiquitous in bookstores. It has very eye-catching cover art – black background, white text. The title font is great. Unfortunately, the online font identifiers are failing me. The name is also concise but intriguing. Most of all, it’s a potential fantasy juggernaut written by a Chinese American who went to Harvard and now lives in MA. How can I not read this?

1) “But if you waited patiently, eventually the common dross and dregs would settle to the bottom, where they belonged, and the clear water would allow the light through, the noble and the pure.”

Time is the best judge.

2) “‘Strange that a poison and its antidote would grow so close together.'” – Kuni

Don’t be toxic, find your antidote. I’ll find mine.

3) “Once all the children had been educated under one standard script and one standard dialect, the local scholars no longer could dictate what thoughts could spread within their realm of influence.”

Education really is so powerful. If you win education, you win the mind and you win, period.

4) “‘Emperor, king, general, duke. These are just labels. Climb up the family tree of any of them high enough and you’ll find a commoner who dared to take a chance.'” – Kuni

Same logic applies to immigration.

5) “‘The lottery is only a cover for something better. You see, people won’t be purchasing their lottery tickets directly. Instead, they’ll get them only when shopping, as a kind of receipt. For each silver piece they spend, they obtain from the vendor a lottery ticket for free. The more they spend shopping, the more tickets they get.'” – Cogzy

When I read this, I vaguely remembered I’d heard of it before. It’s Taiwan (and also other countries). I shouldn’t have thrown out all my Taiwan receipts.

6) “‘The people offer up their treasure and labor and maintain all of us in luxury with the single expectation that we will protect them in times of danger.'” – King Jizu

Are taxes just an insurance premium?

7) “‘Being compassionate to one’s enemies means being cruel to one’s own soldiers.'” – Mata

I’m not sure if this is an Asian proverb, but I’ve only heard it in context of Asian things.

8) “These theatrical outbursts were exactly what he had expected – these men had no ideas of their own, but they were ready to shoot down others’ proposals.”

Because criticizing is one of the easiest things to do.

9) “It is how actions are seen that matters, not what was intended.”

Career advice 101. Life advice 101.

10) “‘Would you stop drinking medicine after a week when it takes ten days to show results?'” – the doctor

Yes, sometimes I do.

They are definitely going to try and make a movie out of this. It’s quite convoluted though, and sometimes characters just die with no real explanations. Also, the plot has a lot of Chinese elements. It felt a bit like a TVB drama at times. I probably won’t read the sequel for now, but I’m paying attention to this author.

The Singapore Story

The Singapore Story

The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew

It’s been six months since I moved to Singapore. Even though I’ve barely spent time here, I still feel like I’m home every time I land at Changi. When I was sorting out housing before the move, I seriously considered not renting a place and just getting an Airbnb or hotel whenever I’m in Singapore. I’m glad I ended up renting. The per-day cost is high, but mentally it makes such a big difference.

There’s no doubt Singapore is one of the most impressive societies I’ve seen. It’s incredible that this country is only 50 years old. Everything works and is extremely organized. It feels somewhat like an urban utopia. But that’s not to say it’s necessarily superior to other places. Before coming here, I had read a lot about the pros and cons of Singapore. I repeatedly saw weather and “sterile” as the worst parts of Singapore. And it’s true. It’s hot and humid all the time, and it rains everyday. Recently, I’ve noticed how many of the ads around are for government programs or initiatives. Even my FB feed is inundated with Gov.sg ads. Here, the government plays a huge role in daily life. Combining this with the muggy weather, it can feel like a trap. The good thing is that, at least to outsiders like me, the Singapore government is very competent and well-meaning. It’s hard to argue that the government is doing a bad job, considering how Singapore has turned out. Since this all started with Lee Kuan Yew, I read this book to learn more about how Singapore became what it is today.

1) Lee Kuan Yew grew up during the Japanese invasion, which served as the foundation for some of his thinking.

For one, the Japanese showed him that the British were not unbeatable. Colonialism no longer made sense. Secondly, he believed in punishment because he saw that it was effective. Also, the Sook Ching Massacre contributed to the strong Chinese identity that drove much of the politics in Singapore, and later with the Federation of Malaya.

2) He met his wife while running a stationery gum business with her brother.

Stationery gum is not chewing gum, but the irony is not lost.

3) The post-war Chinese community looked to China and were receptive to communism.

The threat of communism was the key factor in how a lot of Singaporean politics played out. Lee Kuan Yew had to win the Chinese vote without being communist, and the British interfered with affairs to ensure that Singapore would not turn communist.

4) LKY made sure that his children were educated in Chinese schools.

Education is so important because it shapes people’s thoughts and values from a young age.

5) After returning from Cambridge, LKY started off as a lawyer for trade and student unions.

He became famous during the government arrests of students, and he formed the People’s Action Party (PAP), originally a mix of communists and non-communists. To this day, PAP is still the ruling party.

6) The Singapore flag is a mix of Chinese and Malay symbols.

The crescent moon for Malays and the five stars for Chinese. Vexillology is amazing.

7) A referendum was held for the Singaporean public on the topic of merger with Malaya.

71% supported LKY’s proposal, while 25% cast blank votes. LKY did not allow No votes.

8) The merger was combined with North Borneo and Sarawak so that the ratio of Malays and Chinese wouldn’t be upset.

The struggle for power between Malays and Chinese was the key problem in the merger.

9) Indonesia launched the Confrontation to protest the creation of Malaysia.

I’d like to read more on Indonesia and its relationship with the other countries in SEA.

10) Ultimately, Goh Keng Swee and LKY secretly worked with Malay leaders to finalize the separation of Singapore.

The UMNO and PAP got involved in the politics of each other’s base. Also, the terms around taxes and defense were never satisfactory to either party. As LKY says, the Tunku saw him as too much of a threat to potentially take over the entire Malaysia, so the Tunku had no choice but to kick Singapore out.

As LKY put it, Singapore is an island of Chinese surrounded by islands of Malays. Before this book, I hadn’t really registered how odd this was. Singapore feels so different from China that I never viewed the Chinese people here from an ethnic angle. One of the best parts of Singapore is its multiracialism. It wasn’t easy for Singapore to become independent, and unfortunately racial issues won’t go away any time soon.

The Design of Everyday Things

Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

This book has “must read” written all over it for people in design. And even though I’m not a designer, I’d say design is a constant theme in my job. From writing specs for applications to making slides and building excel models, any form of creation involves design. So I figured I had to read this.

Overall, I was fairly disappointed. I was looking for more concrete examples of good/bad design, but this book is extremely framework and principle heavy. It’s like reading a consulting manual. I’d argue that the title is badly designed. Maybe rename it to “The Design Principles of Everyday Things.”

1) “Norman doors” are confusing doors.

Along with the spotlight on almighty design principles, there is a fair bit of self aggrandizement that was slightly off-putting.

2) We should design things with the assumption that people will always make errors.

This sounds like common sense, but it really hit home since I was designing an excel model from scratch at the time (somehow, for the first time…) Effectively every input, no matter how straightforward, needs to have a validation check and warning messages.

3) An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determines what’s possible.

Every time this word came up, I had to remind myself what it meant. An example is that a chair affords sitting. It also affords lifting by people who have the strength to lift it but it does not afford lifting for people who can’t.

4) Turning the knob of a wristwatch winds the springs that power its movements.

I always thought turning the knob did nothing (unless the knob was pulled out first).

5) Good design allows people to develop the correct conceptual models.

For example, I think many people set the AC or heat way past their desired temperature to get it to cool down / heat up faster. However, this is the wrong conceptual model. The temperature you set dictates when the AC / heat stops, but has no bearing on how fast the temperature changes.

6) Stove controls are a great example of bad mapping.

Users shouldn’t have to read the labels to know which control corresponds to which burner.

7) The moving text vs moving window confusion came about as touchscreens became more common.

Every time I use other people’s macs, I remember how weird it is to use the moving text model on a laptop.

8) Microsoft patented cylindrical batteries that work regardless of bipolarity.

It’s called InstaLoad, and I’ve never seen it.

9) Destination control elevators were invented in 1985 and first used commercially in 1990.

The destination control elevators are definitely my favorite part of the Singapore office. They seem far more common in Asia, probably because the buildings are newer.

10) Toyota developed the ‘Five Whys’ approach.

It’s amazing how many people (myself included) struggle to answer the “why” behind the most mundane things. Ask someone why they like their hobbies, and you’ll get a look of disdain.

Even though I didn’t like this book much and wouldn’t recommend it, I definitely took some ideas and applied them to my real life. It’s especially relevant when I go to new hotels. The mapping of the lights is almost guaranteed to be terrible. The number of times I’ve lain down on my bed, turned off the lights, and realized I had to get up to turn off some random light in the corner is too damn high.

1Q84

1Q84

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Yet another Murakami epic. As usual, not much happens in 1000 pages, but it’s still good.

1) “This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: ‘At the time, no one knew what was coming'”

Something else I red recently – if you think something is unprecedented, that just means you don’t know enough.

2) “‘And that’s the simple fact that you want to do this'” – Komatsu

Make other people think that they came up with the idea.

3) “The feel of the words he chose would change depending on whether he was writing them on paper in pencil or typing them on the keyboard”

I used pen and paper yesterday, and it felt like I had forgotten how to write.

4) “Either I’m funny or the world’s funny, I don’t know which. The bottle and lid don’t fit. It could be the bottle’s fault or the lid’s fault”

Great analogy

5) “But still, a basic desire to obtain knowledge at a universal level – which Tengo assumed to be a more or less natural urge in people – was lacking in the man”

This is one of the scarier things about humanity that I’m starting to see more of.

6) “Mathematical functions stroked their backs; theorems sent warm breath into their ears”

O.

7) “‘It’s like the Tibetan Wheel of the Passions. As the wheel turns, the values and feelings on the outer rim rise and fall, shining or sinking into darkness. But true love stays fastened to the axle and doesn’t move'” – Aomame

I googled this. Seems like it’s not a real thing, but there is a Buddhist wheel of life.

8) “‘Once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired'” – Tamaru

I miss the days of pistol class 6(!) years ago.

9) “The world moves less by money than by what you owe people and what they owe you”  

This is the one-line summary of modern financial markets.

10) “‘True, I don’t eat meat. That was no lie. I’m going to take you home in my mouth and trade you for lettuce'” – the cat

A lesson that everything has value. And, as always, cats talk in Murakami books.

1Q84 is not my favorite Murakami book. It’s also definitely the best one to start with, since it’s even more mellow than usual.

 

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

The elephant in the room is orange. I will refrain from starting an election spiel – mostly because I am speechless. However, I’d like to be annoying and say that I saw this coming. It’s partly why I made an effort to visit as many different parts of the US as possible this year. Perhaps it’s all too telling that I ended up going to some of the most liberal places possible – Portland, SF, etc. And even my visits to conservative states brought me to places like Austin and Atlanta. The one trip that might have been useful – a trip to Ohio – didn’t happen. All this is to say that it requires a huge effort to understand America. And this America – 50% of which I don’t understand – has spoken.

This book is nonfiction, but it’s much more appropriate to directly quote it since no one trusts processed information anymore.

1) “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

This explains a lot.

2) “‘There is nothing lower than the poor stealing from the poor.'” – Mamaw

The rich stealing from the poor is probably worse and happens more often (constantly).

3) “Papaw was a Democrat because that party protected the working people.”

It’s all a paradox. Did poor people vote no to their subsidy programs? Or did not-that-poor people get tired of seeing poor people live on government help? Or do poor people not want help? Maybe this doesn’t matter at all. I’m genuinely confused.

4) “‘Never be like these f___king losers who think the deck is stacked against them.'” – Mamaw

Throughout the book, Vance comes back to this idea that people like him don’t blame themselves for anything. It’s other people’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. They think that their choices no longer  have consequences. They think they have no control over their own lives. That is a honestly a scary thought. Once someone believes this, then everything is in play. How did so many people in this self-made country come to believe this?

5) “‘The truth is that the Japanese are our friends now. If we end up fighting any of those countries, it’ll be the goddamned Chinese.'” – Papaw

I really want to understand how the US forgave Japan. Other countries certainly haven’t done the same.

6) “‘Mamaw, does God love us?'” – JD

How do people reconcile faith with all the terrible things that happen? Added to the list of mysteries to solve.

7) “He taught me that lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same.”

This became very apparent to me at MIT.

8) “The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget – this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.”

Thankful that I grew up in the environment I did.

9) “The irony is that for poor people like us, an education at Notre Dame is both cheaper and finer.”

I wonder how many potential applicants know this – that the best schools are actually cheaper because of financial aid. I know it’s not always the case, but it is for a lot of people. Financial aid is probably the single nonliving thing that has had the biggest impact on my life.

10) “At Yale Law School, I felt like my spaceship had crashed in Oz. People would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class.”

Yes, this is real.

I had a lot of feelings while and after reading this autobiography. The strongest was the feeling that I’ve been so lucky. It’s something that has been on my mind after coming back to Asia. Even when I’m in world class cities like Hong Kong and Singapore – which are arguably objectively better, I can’t help but think that America, despite all of its problems, is the greatest place in the world.

Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

It’s been a busy transition to Singapore. For the first time in four months, I finally have a chance to sit down and write a blog post. I started this book before the big move, but since coming to Singapore, life has been a whirlwind. Between work and traveling, my top two hobbies (reading and League) have fallen by the wayside. I’ve started reading again, and the temptations to restart leaguing are real. But my 4-year-old mac is doing a good job setting a high activation energy threshold.

This book was a long one. The plot is fairly slow, with almost no climax. It ended up being less political than I expected – although if I tried to read it with that intent, I’m sure it could have been. For me, it read more like a Chinese TV series.

1) “A frozen turnip must thaw out slowly. If you heat it, it will turn into mush.” – Old Zhang

This book is full of Chinese proverbs, which are the best kind of proverbs.

2) “‘Join the commune and stop working for yourself, end your quest for independence.'” – Hong Taiyue

Everything is on a spectrum. How different is this from joining a company?

3) “‘As a representative of a class that is marked for elimination, you could have shot me dead, but that would have made me a revolutionary martyr. The government would have then executed you, turning you into a counterrevolutionary martyr.'” – Hong Taiyue

The more history I learn and the more politics I read, the more I’m convinced that politics is just a pendulum. You can never please everyone, so there’s always a counter force that eventually becomes the dominant force. Rinse and repeat. Is it all a zero-sum game?

4) “‘My young friend, amassing wealth creates enemies, dispensing it brings good fortune. Enjoy life while you can, take your pleasure where you can, and when your wealth is gone, fortune will smile on you.'” – Zheng Zhongliang

Reminder that sometimes you gotta spend. Saving doesn’t make sense if you never end up spending.

5) “‘This street was here before the People’s Commune was created, and so were the air and the sun. They were given to all people and animals by the powers of heaven, and you and your People’s Commune have no right to monopolize them!'” – Lan Lian

Who has ultimate property rights?

6) “‘I just want to live a quiet life and be my own master. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.'” – Lan Lian

When you have no boss, your customer is your boss.

7) “‘Any campaign that lacks the participation of students lacks life. Add students, and things start to happen.” 

Is it the lack of skin in the game? Money taints.

8) “People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid of their own shadows, in the 1980s they carefully weighed people’s words and actions, and in the 1990s they were simply evil.”

I have never understood the notion that younger generations are always lazier and more terrible. I’m an optimist. I’m pretty sure this world is becoming a better place.

9) “Feigning madness is like a red veil that masks shame; when worn, it effectively covers up all scandals. Once madness appears, what else is there to say?”

I’ve yet to reconcile treating mental illness as a real illness and preventing people from hiding behind it.

10) “A series of rebirths had taught me one simple truth; when you come to a new place, learn the local customs and follow them.”

Very fitting. Of all the places I’ve been to, China has felt the most localized. There’s no desire to be like the west. There’s a Chinese way of doing things, and life is a lot easier if you follow it.

I enjoyed the subtle sarcasm throughout the book even though the story was dragged out for way too long. I also wish I had kept track of the characters better because it was honestly tough to follow the storylines across generations. Based on a sample size of 1, I prefer Yu Hua.

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Online book recommendations, like all other ‘bot’ recommendations, fall short because they are too aligned with one’s revealed interests. One of the best ways I’ve discovered new books is to ask friends for recommendations. I’ve found that book preference isn’t highly correlated amongst my friends if I take out the majority group – those who don’t read at all. Somehow I had never heard of Agatha Christie before. According to Wikipedia, she is the best selling novelist of all time. Part of that is her prolificacy, but I’d have to say this is one of the best mystery novels I’ve read. The plot was fast-paced, and I really couldn’t figure out the murderer.

The most genius part of the book is the Epigraph at the beginning, so I’ll just make that my ten points.

1) Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

2) Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

3) Eight little soldier boys traveling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

4) Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

5) Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.

6) Five little soldier boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were Four.

7) Four little soldier boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

8) Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

9) Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One.

10) One little soldier boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself

And then there were None.

The Unwinding

The Unwinding

The Unwinding by George Packer

I don’t know America. I’ve spent most of my life within a one-hour radius in Massachusetts. That’s why it’s great that I get to travel as part of my job. Winston-Salem and Harrisburg are not glamorous, but perhaps they are closer to the ‘real’ America than Cambridge is. An even better part of my job is that I get to travel on the weekends. In this election year, when I feel more than ever that I have no clue what and who America is, I’ve taken advantage of this to visit as many places in the US of A as possible: Ann Arbor, Puerto Rico, LA, DC, New Orleans, Tampa, NYC, SF, Portland, Denver, and Austin. Yes, these are some of the most liberal cities, so I’m not necessarily putting myself in the other half’s shoes. But it’s a start to getting to know this country.

This book is one of my other attempts to understand America. It has a slight liberal slant – and that only goes to show how one’s beliefs are self-reinforcing. In this age of personalized information feeds, no one has to hear what he/she doesn’t want to hear. Regardless, it was very cool to connect the narratives in the book to my recent treks across the country. For example, Sheetz plays a big part in one character’s story – and I didn’t even know what Sheetz was until I started this project in Harrisburg – which includes two weekly two-hour drive through the exciting land of billboards and trucks. Another example is the empty promise of Tampa, which felt like a place in limbo when I visited.

1) Newt Gingrich came to power with his ‘Contract with America’ and served as Speaker of the House during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

I didn’t like that post-WWII American history was not really part of the APUSH curriculum. I feel like I have this giant gap in history knowledge from 1945 – 2008. All I knew of Gingrich before this book was that he sort of ran for president in 2012, and people did not like him.

2) Biden’s wife and one-year old daughter were killed in a car accident.

Throughout his Senate career, in order to spend time with his sons, he commuted from Delaware to DC every day.

3) Stores raise their prices at the beginning of the month since people on welfare can only buy things then.

If true, that’s sad. Very reminiscent of my business strategies in Roller Coaster Tycoon. If rain, then price of umbrella = $20.

4) Oprah’s name was originally Orpah. Her family couldn’t pronounce it correctly, so it became Oprah.

Oprah is also apparently responsible for empowering the anti-vaccine movement by bringing Jenny McCarthy onto her show.

5) If a presidential primary candidate can raise $250 each from 20 people in 20 states, then he/she qualifies for public matching fund.

The money comes from checking a box on tax returns.

6) RJ Reynolds made Winston Salem a tobacco city.

Winston Salem might be one of the most depressing cities I’ve been to. It feels like it’s stuck in the past and not in a good way.

7) Sam Walton opened his first discount store in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962. He gave it a short name to save money.

Walton would fly his Air Coupe over towns to spot the best locations for Wal-Mart.

8) Confinity, the creator of Paypal, was the first company to offer cryogenics as an employee benefit.

The only surprising part of the national conventions was Thiel’s support of Trump. If I have time, I’ll go back and watch the speech. Thiel’s political position has always been contrarian as a gay Republican from Stanford.

9) Focusing on the concept of locally grown and organic ingredients, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in CA in 1971.

Was this the beginning of the modern-day fad of organic and cold-brew food?

10) Peak oil refers to the point of maximum rate of petroleum extraction.

M. King Hubbert predicted that the US would hit peak oil in 1970. His theory seemed correct until fracking came along. For me, this is yet another example of how a lot of economic theories are pointless because their purpose is to fit some recent trends. See Philips Curve.

This book is a tour through different parts of America over the past 30 years. Unlike most nonfiction books I’ve read, it gets better in the second half – perhaps it’s just that I can more easily relate to the 2000s than the 1980s. My only complaint is that I don’t agree with the book’s premise – the unwinding. America has never been one. No place has ever been one.  It’s not an unwinding. It’s about what America does best, which is letting its people speak up and vote for what they want.

 

Wind / Pinball

Wind / Pinball

Wind / Pinball by Haruki Murakami

It’s been too long of a break from Murakami. Life has been too realistic, not enough weird. Going back to my original plan, I’m now reading his books in order – starting with this recently published version of his first two short stories. Even Murakami himself doesn’t consider these part of his literary career, but when there is money to be made, things happen. There is an interesting foreword from the author talking about how he started out writing novels. He says that he first started writing in English and then translating it back to Japanese, and because his English abilities were so limited, his style became very plain and straightforward. Very ironic to read all his books in English now. He also says that the epiphany to become a writer came to him during a baseball game. I guess crazy thoughts happen when you’re bored.

1) “If one operates on the principle that everything can be a learning experience, then of course aging needn’t be so painful. That’s what they tell us, anyway.”

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

2) “‘Cause they don’t need to, that’s why. Sure, they have to use their brains a little to get rich in the first place, but once they make it, it’s a piece of cake – they don’t need to think anymore. Like an orbiting satellite doesn’t need gas. They just keep going round and round, always over the same damn place.'” – the Rat

What great imagery for ‘rich get richer.’ Spend the time and energy to figure out how to launch a satellite. Once you do, you can live a chill life.

3) “But if a fridge that has to be defrosted all year round can be called cool, then that’s what I was.”

I feel like there’s a (freezer) bern in there, but I can’t feel it.

4) “Were we to speak the truth all year round, then the truth might lose its value.”

Truth.

5) “‘Will it be a hassle, us not having names?'” – one of the twins

The best part of reading Wind / Pinball was identifying all the little things that would show up again in his later books. The twins are very much the predecessors to the motley crew of strange characters in Wind-up Bird / Kafka, etc. In particular, the twins don’t have names. Nameless living beings are a major theme throughout Murakami’s writing.

6) “‘Suppose someone were to die today – we wouldn’t feel sad,’ the quit young Venusian said. ‘We loved them with all our hearts while they were alive, so there’s no need for regrets.'”

How Venus of a Venusian to say this.

7) “‘Okay, so let’s say this mother dog is raising her puppies…But if she dies, then her puppies will all die too. So when her time comes, we go around replacing her with a new mother.'” – the repairman

I don’t actually know what a switch panel is, so this description (if true) helps.

8) “‘I do have a cat, though,” J added. ‘She’s getting on, but she’s still someone to talk to.'”

Talking cats in Kafka on the Shore introduced me to the Murakami world.

9) “The twins never mentioned the rain, so neither did I.”

If it’s raining, and you and your friend don’t feel the need to talk about it, then you’re real friends. This might be more applicable in LA than London though.

10) “Twenty-five…a time to crack down and do some serious thinking. Add two twelve-year-old kids together and you get the same age. Are you worth as much as they are?”

Am I? I like this alternative way of analyzing quarter-life crisis.

Neither Hear the Wind Sing nor Pinball, 1973 is very memorable. They are more of a window into Murakami’s early writing than anything. Onto the next one.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This book often gets mentioned alongside 1984 and Brave New World as dystopia classics. Out of the three, it’s the only one that wasn’t mandatory in high school. After hearing rave reviews from a good number of people, I decided I would read it – at the risk of the plot being exactly the same as the other two. The story turned out to be perhaps more like the Book Thief, and the writing style is also quite different from what I remembered of 1984.

1) “‘I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly….If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose-garden.'” – Clarisse

I really like this twist on perception of truth.

2) “How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?”

I want people to show me my judging and questioning face.

3) “‘We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?'” – Montag

Have I been bothered by something important and real lately?

4) “‘It didn’t come from Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.'” – Captain Beatty

One of the more interesting concepts in this story is that the population grew to be self-censoring and self-policing. It didn’t start with someone coming in and enforcing laws. Scary reminder that there isn’t always a clear culprit.

5) “‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.'” – Captain Beatty

The fine line between free speech and offensive speech will probably never go away.

6) “‘Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.'” – Captain Beatty

Wow. This is all truth. This is also a direct attack on this blog.

7) “‘Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.'” – Faber

#podcastrevolution

8) “‘Those who don’t build must burn.'” – Faber

This sounds like some unspoken MIT motto.

9) “‘What is there about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it? It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did.'” – Captain Beatty

Fire, water, clouds. The best things to look at.

10) “‘But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time.'” – Granger

Convince but don’t take credit. Does it really work?

Overall, Fahrenheit 451 is solid. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best classics, although I think this is largely a result of 1984/Book Thief having incumbent advantage.

How Music Got Free

How Music Got Free

How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

This is a book about the birth of the mp3, the rise and fall of music privacy, and how the music industry dealt with the onslaught. It’s mainly told through the lens of three main characters: the inventor of  mp3, a CD assembly factory worker who became one of the top pirates, and the music industry executive Doug Morris. The story is captivating, and it’s great to learn about a phenomenon that I grew up alongside but have never really studied. It brought back memories of my first mp3 player, which I had to hold in a certain way to get the music to play. I still have it – I wonder if it works now.

1) Zwicker, a German acoustics scientist, discovered that the auditory system canceled out noise both before and after a loud crash.

The ‘after’ component seems natural, but the ‘before’ component is somewhat counterintuitive. Ultimately, our system takes a few milliseconds to process sound, and this can be interrupted by louder sounds. One ramification of this discovery is that compression algorithms could assign fewer bits to the few milliseconds before a loud beat.

2) In 1988, a Saipan radio station run by missionaries became the first buyer of a hand-built mp3 decoder.

Later, in 1995, the NHL became one of the earliest enterprise adopters of the mp3.

3) mp2 is not the predecessor of mp3.

Contrary to popular (or my previous) belief, mp2 and mp3 are separate technologies. mp2 is made by the MUSICAM group, backed by Philips, which had sway with the MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group). mp3 is designed by Brandenburg and his colleagues at the Fraunhofer Society. Since this book is told from Brandenburg’s perspective, the author spends a good amount of time painting this battle of compression standards as a David vs Goliath situation.

4) Fraunhofer started developing AAC to replace the mp3 because mp3 was not selling well commercially.

AAC actually performs better than the mp3. Nowadays (or five years ago), AAC was probably best known as “Apple’s format.” The truth is that AAC is not Apple proprietary technology. Interesting, the first publicly available mp3 encoder (L3Enc) did not include versions for Apple machines because Apple’s environment was too difficult to code for.

5) On IRC, different groups of people raced each other to leak pirated music. This community was called the Scene.

In 1996, the group CDA (Compress Da Audio) released the first officially pirated mp3: Until It Sleeps by Metallica.

6) Morris filed two lawsuits to fight music piracy – RIAA vs Diamond Multimedia Systems and A&M Records vs Napster.

The first lawsuit targeted mp3 players. The second targeted companies that allowed the transfer of copyrighted materials.

7) Omerta is a code of silence that one would not give evidence to the police.

8) Bram Cohen invented BitTorrent in 2001, and the Pirate Bay came online in 2003.

Cognitive dissonance: 1) There’s been no technological progress. 2) So many relevant technologies are actually very new.

9) Authorities want to put people on trial in Virginia.

The population has a high percentage of federal employees. Historically, juries in VA find defendants guilty more than those in any other federal jurisdiction. Very interesting.

10) Doug Morris oversaw the launch of Vevo in 2009.

This was probably the best strategic move made by Morris – more effective than the lawsuits he brought forth that backfired and solidified public opinion against the big record labels.

How Music Got Free is a very informative book that I think most 20-somethings will enjoy. It’s like learning about what happened behind the scenes as we discovered mp3 and torrents and as we watched the downfall of physical albums, the rise and fall of the mp3, the rise (and fall?) of torrenting, and the rise of streaming. It’s crazy how the mp3 is already kind of past tense. Spotify streams in OGG. Even torrenting is somewhat past tense. Torrent traffic used to make up 1/3 of internet traffic. Nowadays, Netflix dominates internet traffic. Such is life.

In the Heat

In the Heat

In the Heat by Ian Vasquez

Belize was a tough country to find a book for. Almost everything was a travel guide. There were a few history books, but they looked way too long and academic, so I settled for this mystery novel which takes place in Belize. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t really spend much time describing the country except for several one-off comments – mostly about Belize’s third world status.

Overall, the plot is not bad. I rarely say this, but this book was too short. There wasn’t enough time to get to know the cast of characters, and it ended just when it started getting good. The book was action-filled, yet not action-packed. All in all, it was a basic relaxing read. Nothing memorable, so I’ll pass on the quotes.

Modern Romance

Modern Romance

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

As a bona fide yuppie/yappie/millenial, this book is mandatory reading. I had very low expectations, and they were narrowly exceeded. I finished this in less than two days, which is about the amount of time it takes me to read a Wait But Why article.

1) A 1932 study found that 1 in 8 couples had lived in the same building before getting married.

Now it’s a sin to marry someone from the same continent.

2) People used to look for a pot of water and heat it up later. Now, people look for a pot of boiling water.

One of the best metaphors in the book.

3) The first SMS sent was a text of “Merry Christmas” in 1992.

Do people text anymore?

4) In a largely forgotten transient phase between newspaper ads and online dating, people used to make videos of themselves.

Sometimes I think there hasn’t been much technological advances over my lifetime; it’s probably more of a statement on how natural new things feel.

5) Between 2005-2012, more than 1/3 of couples who got married in the US met through online dating.

That’s an incredible number, for a concept that has been looked down upon.

6) Grindr came out 3 years before Tinder. And they even made Blendr before Tinder.

Goes to show that being first doesn’t guarantee you win. (Tesla…)

7) A 2013 survey showed that 45% of women age 16-24 were not interested in or despised sexual contact.

Yes, this is Japan.

8) Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri – and the current President of Argentina – said that women like to be catcalled.

I really feel that the era of being PC is coming to an end. This presidential election will be a tipping point.

9) Telos are love hotels popular in Buenos Aires.

Goes to show that just because young people live with their parents doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t around.

10) People who own iPhones are twice as likely to sext as people who use Androids.

Trying to come up with an explanation for this. Nothing straightforward comes to mind. Socio-economic status? Camera quality?

These light sociology/behavior books are never great. There is usually way too much common sense. The best parts of the book, outside of the dive into Tokyo and BA, were Aziz’s comments on his own love life. Of course I googled ‘Aziz Ansari girlfriend’ afterwards. And of course, they’ve broken up. Modern Romance.

Catch 22

Catch 22

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

A very funny anti-war classic with some of the wittiest dialogue. I laughed out loud a couple times, like I did when I read Huck Finn. Most ironically, I went to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans when I was about halfway through this book. It was amusing trying to reconcile the patriotic and serious presentation at the museum with the highly sarcastic narrative in Catch 22.

1) “Orr was crazy and he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

I had always assumed that the phrase ‘Catch 22′ predated the book. It’s amazing that this book actually coined a term that is still used in everyday life. I can see why. This recurring idea of the Catch 22 was brilliant.

2) “Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes.”

Epic low blow.

3) “Doc Daneeka hated to fly. He felt imprisoned in an airplane. In an airplane there was absolutely no place in the world to go except to another part of the airplane.”

It’s such an irony that an airplane can bring you anywhere in the world, yet there is almost no place in the world that’s more of a trap.

4) “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so.”

Catch 22 is sarcastic humor, but it’s also real.

5) “Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

This is just like that game where you try to name people who you’ve forgotten.

6) “‘The important thing is to keep them pledging,’ he explained to his cohorts. ‘It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ mean.'”

We stumbled upon a ceremony at the National WWII Museum while waiting in line to buy tickets. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It was scary that I still knew every word even though I hadn’t heard it for almost 6 years.

7) “There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily.”

A very enlightening observation. When else would people have a higher chance of dying outside the hospital?

8) “Yossarian – the very sight of the name made him shudder. There were so many esses in it. It just had to be subversive. It was like the word subversive itself. It was like seditious and insidious too, and like socialist, suspicious, fascist, and Communist.”

Since Jetblue has live TV on its flights, my Thursday night flights have become my only real source of updates on the presidential campaign. Toggling between CNN and FoxNews made me realize that I’ve been avoiding a lot of toxicity by staying out of politics. Example: Bill O’Reilly calling Bernie Sanders a Communist.

9) “‘The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well….” – an old Italian man

Weakness in itself is a strength. No one will attack you if you’re not a threat.

10) “‘No, no. In what state were you born?’ ‘In a state of innocence.'”

I loled.

Catch 22 is full of wisdom. It’s also full of colorful characters. It was a bit difficult to keep track of everyone, but some really stood out (Yossarian, Milo, the chaplain, Major Major). Not too many books are laugh-out-loud funny, and this one is.

The Firm

The Firm

The Firm by Duff McDonald

For a consultant, this book is perhaps mandatory reading. But as with all things mandatory, this book is not really mandatory. I decided to read it anyway, since I honestly don’t know much about the consulting industry itself. We talk so much about being knowledgeable in the industries we serve. Yet, I very rarely think about the industry I’m technically in. This becomes all too apparent when people ask me what I do. The definition of consulting I’ve arrived at for now is “injection of talent,” but introducing my job as such doesn’t work too well in small talk.

1) McKinsey was founded in 1926 by James O. McKinsey, a UChicago accounting professor who got a degree in pedagogy.

Timing is everything, and consulting got off to a great start as large conglomerates needed help managing their empires.

2) Alfred Sloan was the president of General Motors who led the company as it surpassed Ford.

Sloan let customers choose between Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Cadillacs.

3) Armour & Company, one of the largest meatpackers in the country, was McKinsey’s first client.

McKinsey helped them rethink budgeting and planning. Contrary to popular belief, consulting has never been glamorous.

4) In 1963, Marvin Bower sold his shares back to the firm at book value instead of selling the firm at market value.

Bower is portrayed as the guy who really defined McKinsey and made it the prestigious consulting firm it continues to be.

5) In 1951, Arch Patton found that worker wages had been rising faster than executive wages.

Although this is not the catalyst for the current sky-high executive pay packages (that, according to Planet Money, stemmed from a Clinton bill that ended up incentivizing stock options), it does show that nothing has to be the way it currently is. Executive pay doesn’t have to be high. Interest rates don’t have to be negative. Inflation doesn’t have to be 0. Economic conditions are artificial.

6) For the first several decades, McKinsey sold a decentralized, multidivisional organizational structure.

The early years of McKinsey focused on organizational work. Then times changed, and McKinsey adapted, shifting its focus to strategy then to content knowledge then to IT.

7) McKinsey did not have a black director until 2005.

Diversity is the buzzword of all buzzwords nowadays. It’s bad now, and it was very bad not too long ago.

8) In Search of Excellence, documenting the “excellent” ways of 43 successful companies, became one of the best-selling business books ever.

This sounds like a terrible book. It’s interesting to note that McKinsey people publishing books is a very real thing. Soft power at its best.

9) Skilling advised Enron to become some sort of a gas bank, by buying gas from producers and selling it to customers.

McKinsey was at the heart of the Enron fiasco, but largely came out clean.

10) Raj Gupta, the managing director, was sentenced to two years in prison for insider trading.

Even more incredible than the Enron escape is McKinsey’s ability to maintain its prestigious brand after this 2012 scandal. Does anyone who considers consulting care at all about this incident? I can’t imagine that anyone would not want to work at McKinsey because of this scandal. Good PR goes a long way.

Three lessons from this book:

1) Be flexible

2) Keep a good reputation

3) Be lucky

Works for McKinsey. Probably works for all of us.

 

Strong Poison

Strong Poison

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

One of my coworkers recommended Dorothy Sayers’ detective novels. After doing some research, I picked Strong Poison as my first foray into this genre since I failed to get through Sherlock Holmes probably a decade ago. That had been my second time trying to read Sherlock Holmes. Taken together with the fact that I fall asleep during Sherlock episodes, I decided that Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories don’t work for me.

1) “A person who can believe all articles of the Christian faith is not going to boggle over a trifle of adverse evidence.”

This book is full of subtle social commentary about religion and gender.

2) “‘Charles, acushla, distrust the straightforward case, the man who looks you straight in the eyes, and the tip straight from the horse’s mouth. Only the most guileful deceiver can afford to be so aggressively straight. Even the path of the light is curved – or so they tell us.'” – Wimsey

When everything looks right, it’s because you haven’t identified what’s wrong.

3) “‘Bunter, I have a sensation of being hovered over. I do not like it. It is unusual and it unnerves me. I implore you not to hover.'” – Wimsey

The lord way of saying GTFO.

4) “‘Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental association, you walk in fetters of convention.'” – the fat man

A nice twist to “thinking outside the box.”

5) “‘Can he drink coffee, Marjorie? Or does he require masculine refreshment?'” – Eiluned Price

Woah. If coffee is not masculine enough, then what is tea?

6) “‘I merely proceed on the old Sherlock Holmes basis, that when you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.'” – Miss Marriott

Sherlock Holmes is mentioned multiple times throughout. It definitely felt like Sayers went out of her way to incorporate these Sherlock references, which speaks to how iconic a character  he was.

7) “It’s very ungentlemanly to commit suicide without leaving a note to say you’ve done it – gets people into trouble.” – Wimsey

You know what they say – suicide is the most selfish thing you can do.

8) “‘We owe a great debt of gratitude to the press…so kind of them to pick out all the plums for us and save the trouble of reading the books, don’t you think, and such a joy for the poor dear people who can’t afford seven-and-sixpence, or even a library subscription, I suppose, though I’m sure that works out cheaply enough if one is a quick reader.” – Dowager Duchess

It’s somewhat of a wonder that – with all the tweets, listicles, and even longreads out there – books still hold their own. There is something wholesome about comprehensiveness.

9) “‘Those machines make you careless….In the old days, clerks thought twice about making foolish mistakes, when it meant copying the whole document out again by hand.'” – Mr. Pond

He is talking about typewriters.

10) “‘Still worse, suppose you are in an amphibious condition, wearing one shoe of your own and one of the establishment’s?'” – Miss Climpson

I now have a word to describe this awkward situation at the shoe store.

Strong Poison surprised me. It had almost zero suspense. The detective aspect was weak, but the dialogue was very sharp. Lastly, it’s ironically appropriate that I read this book just as the word “toxic” entered my daily vocabulary.

To Live

To Live

To Live by Yu Hua

This book should be titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events” or “100 Different Ways to Die.” The story is somber throughout, but it is narrated by an old man who has come to terms with his past and does not dwell on the tragedy of it all. Overall, the underlying motifs are strongly Chinese – focusing on family and the value of hard work.

1) “And so the people in the village knew that the man who told dirty stories and sang sad songs had come back again. Actually I learned all those dirty stories and sad songs from them. I knew everything that interested them, and naturally this was also what interested me.”

How to influence people 101.

2) “As I asked, my father-in-law’s face would look like a preserved egg.”

Yu Hua uses very interesting metaphors. This is one of the most head-scratching ones. Maybe it made more sense in the original.

3) “I wondered how many people had died of exhaustion for my ancestors to make this money. It was then that I figured out why my father had insisted on copper coins and not silver: he wanted me to understand this truth. He wanted me to know that money does not come easily.”

Copper coins -> checks -> wire transfer -> Venmo -> blockchain (?)

4) “As soon as the packages of flatbread hit the ground, our brothers dived recklessly on top like animals trying to get their share. The way they piled on top of one another, layer after layer, was exactly how my mom used to weave the soles of my shoes. The way they screamed was no different from a pack of wild wolves.”

Great imagery of war.

5) “As soon as Jiazhen and I started discussing giving her away, Fengxia would come over and stare at us. Her two eyes would blink and our hearts would want to break, and we wouldn’t bring it up again for a couple of days.”

Communication isn’t all about the words.

6) “Who could have known that before long even cooking pots would have to be turned over to the people’ commune? They said it was to smelt iron.”

This book is well regarded for its portrayal of life during different periods of modern China. There’s no explicit mention, but this was the failed steel production scheme of the Great Leap Forward, from the lens of a poor family in a rural village.

7) “That day I went into town to sell firewood, and on the way home I bought Youqing five fen worth of candy. This was the first time I had bought anything for my son. I felt I should show Youqing that I loved him.”

Because Asian parents cannot say “I love you.”

8) “Everybody watched as the Red Guards shouted slogans and marched off with a look of murder in their eyes. Not a single person went up to try to stop them. No one had that kind of courage.”

The Cultural Revolution is really the forgotten Holocaust.

9) “When summer came, their house was filled with mosquitoes, and they didn’t have a mosquito net. As soon as it got dark, Erxi would have Fengxia sit outside in the cool night air while he lay down in bed to let the mosquitoes feed on him.”

Do mosquitoes really get full?

10) “When these chickens grow up they’ll become geese, and when the geese grow up they’ll become lambs. When the lambs grow up they’ll turn into oxen. And us, we’ll get richer and richer.”

My favorite line of the book.

I wish I had read this book in Chinese. It definitely feels like a lot was lost in translation. I’ll most likely read one of his other books once I find a Chinese version.

 

Nexus

Nexus

Nexus by Ramez Naam

I can’t remember the last sci-fi book I read. This was a Marginal Revolution recommendation and looked cool. My favorite part of reading this was judging the author’s predictions of the world in 2040. It’s really not that far away. I’m 24, and 2040 is 24 years away. Will we still have phones? Will we have solved cancer?

1) “Kade picked Sam up just past nine in a Siemens autocab. The little plastic and carbon fiber car drove them south and east along the 101, past SFO, past San Mateo, past Menlo Park and Palo Alto and Stanford, and the venture capital of the world.” 

Not an Uber? Also interesting that when the plot moves to Bangkok, there is no mention of self-driving cars. Instead, it’s tuk-tuks and chauffeurs.

2) “‘You can’t control what people do with phones, or planes, or the net,’ he replied. ‘People do terrible things with all of those, but the good things outweigh them. Should we take all of those back too?'” – Kade

Brings back memories of my SAT prompt. Is technology good or bad? 8/12.

3) “‘This is Chien Liu, now president of Taiwan. This picture was taken on the eve of his election victory last year, in 2039. President Liu was the head of the DPP, the primary opposition party in Taiwan, and ran his campaign on an anti-Beijing platform'” – Becker

The assumption here is that Taiwan will still be its own thing and that it will still be okay (and popular) to be anti-China. Given current Taiwanese politics, this assumption is at least true in 2016.

4) “Had scientists around the country risen up in protest? Fat chance. Everyone just kept their head down, massaged their research proposals, tried to skirt as close to the edge of what was allowed as they could without endangering their federal grant dollars.”

I’d say that federal funds will play a smaller role in science research than they do now. I see rich private companies taking over.

5) “No wonder the international meeting trumps the US neuroscience meetings these days, Kade thought. The cutting edge stuff isn’t legal at home any more.”

Commentary on how laws can destroy progress.

6) “‘The evolution of language marked a great leap forward for our species. It boosted our cognitive abilities by webbing us together into larger, more powerful group minds. I believe that another quantum step in human cognition awaits us on the other side of direct linkage of our brains and minds to one another.'” – Ananda

When it’s framed like that, it’s hard to argue that something like Nexus will be a reality.

7) “‘The most basic expression of it is ‘May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.’ It’s a pledge to keep being reborn into the material world of suffering, to put nirvana off indefinitely, until all beings in the universe have attained enlightenment and can also enter nirvana. It’s perhaps the ultimate vow of placing others before oneself.'” – Ananda

The Bodhisattva vow.

8) “‘You’re looking at a lot more than input here. If this blows up in our faces, you’re going to see hearings in my committee. Hearings during an election year.’ – Senator Barbara Engels

The author repeatedly casts the government as the bad guys. Will there be any progress in government? How does one even define progress? I agree with him. Politics will be politics.

9) “Shu felt the missiles fire. They were aimed at the car. She couldn’t penetrate the security of the second helicopter, but these missiles were a different matter. They depended on an external source to inform them of their targets. She twisted their primitive minds, sent them spiraling back up at the craft that had fired them.”

I loled. This leap of power was sort of out of place. Deus ex machina.

10) “Every attempt through history to limit the definition of humanity has been a prelude to the subjugation, degradation, and slaughter of innocents. Every one.”

Humanity still has a long way to go. It’s almost like we forget past lessons as time passes and we make mistakes again.

Nexus is really good. Very fast paced and very thought-provoking. Even though it’s sci-fi, almost everything in the story is believable. I would not be surprised at all if the state of the world in 2040 turned out like this. The book is probably one of the best commentaries on the problems that will inevitably come packaged with new technology. The only weak spot I’d point out is the action scenes. They got tiring to follow. Too many explosions and too many people getting kicked in the face. That’s why this should be a movie.

More Money Than God

More Money Than God

More Money Than God by Sebastian Mallaby

I first discovered this book through a tweet with a screenshot of a quote. It was a quote about Renaissance Technologies trading on signals that make no sense – otherwise, other hedge funds would find the same trades. The tweet didn’t have a caption. But like everyone who has ever been a student, I am no stranger to googling exact phrases and praying that something shows up. It worked. The book is More Money Than God.

1) Alfred Winslow Jones – the father of the hedge fund – was a Marxist at one point.

A. W. Jones is credited with combining leverage and hedging. He also started the 20% performance fee in order to avoid income tax and pay capital gains tax instead.

2) Steinhardt, of Steinhardt, Fine, Berkowitz, became successful through block trading.

A recurring theme with hedge funds is that they pray on other players who are forced to make certain trades. Once hedge funds identify one of these situations, they are able to profit from it. For Steinhardt, it was block trading. For example, a pension fund might need to buy a large block of stock. Steinhardt used this to his advantage. Eventually, the scale of his trades also gave him access to insider info, which further helped him.

3) The carry trade involves buying currencies that cost less in the forward market than in the spot market.

My understanding of the carry trade was that you borrow in a currency with low interest rates and lend in a currency with high interest rates and pocket the difference. This book presented a different way of looking at it. A forward rate a lot less than the spot rate implies high interest rates, since the discount in the forward market is essentially compensating for the missing interest. Currencies with high interest rates tend to appreciate. So one can buy currency forwards trading at a big discount and sell currency forwards trading at a smaller discount.

4) In a precursor to the 1992 British pound trade, Soros profited from dollar depreciation as a result of the Plaza Accords.

The USD had been very strong, and Reagan wanted to reduce the trade deficit by depreciating the dollar against the yen and the deutsche mark.

5) The Japanese expected their fund managers to return 8 percent, which contributed to the stock market crash of 1990.

One of the most interesting (although unconfirmed?) anecdotes in the book. Japanese savers expected an 8 percent return on the year. Once the market fell a bit at the beginning of the year, fund managers responded by pulling out of the equity market and piling money onto the bond market. Had the drop occurred at the end of the year, fund managers might not have felt the need to exit the stock market.

6) Soros and Drunkenmiller bet against the British pound knowing that the British had to devalue their currency.

A flashback to the tutorial on British-Europe relations I took in Oxford. The awkward exchange rate mechanism (arguably still a bad idea given the current state of Europe) forced the pound and the mark to move in step. Given its past epic failures with inflation, Germany refused to lower interest rates. Meanwhile, Britain did not want to increase interest rates due to the number of mortgages with floating interest rates. Eventually, someone had to give. Ultimately, the British had to devalue the pound despite aggressive measures to prop up the market. Doesn’t the yuan situation seem like a deja vu?

7) Soros made disastrous investments in Russia, including bidding for 25% of Svyazinvest.

The author portrays Soros as a god, claiming that Soros was trying to help Russia out and failed. He also pointed out that Soros had the chance to benefit from the downfall of the won, following the Thai baht, and decided not to crush the Korean economy.

8) Long Term Capital Management imploded, and the Fed ended up brokering a deal of 16 banks to save the hedge fund with $3.625 billion.

LTCM had focused on convergence strategies and was probably more sophisticated in its risk controls than many hedge funds. However, when panic set in, forcing players to liquidate all of their positions, these convergence relationships broke down and brought LTCM down.

9) Farallon started the trend of university endowments investing in hedge funds.

The author stresses this as a reason that hedge funds are great for society. Hedge funds have delivered solid returns to universities, thus helping fund education and research.

10) In the aftermath of the economic crisis in 2008, the government suspended shorting of stocks and thus hurt hedge funds while saving the banks.

In another attempt to portray hedge funds as the good guys vs the banks, the author notes that many hedge fund strategies depended on shorting stocks to hedge their positions. By halting shorting to save the banks, the government essentially screwed over hedge funds.

This book is great for presenting a history of hedge funds. It hits all the major players and is quite technical when it comes to explaining their strategies. It is also one of the most pro-finance books I’ve read. From beginning to end, the book praises hedge funds and their founders. Despite claiming that it’s the regulators’ fault for not clamping down on insider trading, the author actually finishes with quite a strong argument. Hedge funds can correct market inefficiencies. Hedge funds can absorb other hedge fund implosions (e.g. Citadel). Hedge funds are small enough that they are not too-big-to-fail. Hedge funds usually trade enough of their capital that the misaligned incentives common in banks are minimal. I’m not sure how great hedge funds really are, but the main point I’d take away is that hedge funds, even the famous ones, don’t always win.

Code

Code

Code by Charles Petzold

I used to ask my friends how computers work. Almost everyone I know studies computer science, so you’d think someone could tell me. No one did. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they knew the answer and just didn’t want to explain it to me. This book – one of the best books I’ve read in a while – explains it quite well, all the way down to the electrons.

1) SOS is 3 dots, 3 dashes, and 3 dots in Morse code.

SOS doesn’t stand for anything and translates directly into Morse code. The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony spells V.

2) Electron and electricity both derive from the Greek word for “amber.”

The ancient Greeks saw that rubbing amber with wool produced static electricity.

3) A relay uses an electromagnet that moves a metal strip when there is current.

This metal strip acts as a switch to connect the input and output. This idea that a switch could be turned on and off by a current is a founding block of the computer.

4) The black and white strips of a barcode represent bits.

The UPC is a series of 95 bits. There are the left, center, and right guards to orient the barcode. The remaining bits correspond to 12 digits (6 on the left and 6 on the right of the center guard). Each digit is 7 bits long. The first digit is the number system character (regular UPC/variable weight item/coupon). The next 5 digits represent the manufacturer. The next 5 digits represent the code for that item for that particular company. The last digit is the modulo check character.

5) One way to represent negative integers is to use two’s complement.

In binary, this involves inverting all bits and adding 1. Under this procedure, the leftmost bit is the sign bit and subtraction is just addition. While unsigned 8 bits normally represent 0 to 255, signed 8 bits represent -128 to 127.

6) Early computers used relays. Then came vacuum tube computers, which were eventually replaced by computers built with transistors.

At the time, vacuum tubes were a significant improvement over relays because tubes could switch in a microsecond, compared to a millisecond for relays.

7) Semiconductors have 4 electrons in their outer shell and can be doped to make them into negative or positive semiconductors.

An NPN transistor has 2 N-type semiconductors, with 1 P-type semiconductor sandwiched in between. The three pieces are called the collector, the base, and the emitter. Somehow, I had completely forgotten what semiconductors were. To the point where I didn’t even register that they were elements. High school was a long time ago. 3.091 was also a long time ago.

8) In 1971, Intel came out with the first “computer on a chip” (microprocessor) – the 4004.

The 4004 was a 4-bit microprocessor with a clock speed of 108 KHz and 640B RAM. If I’m doing the comparison correctly, most mainstream laptop processors now are 64-bit with a clock speed of x GHz and x GB RAM. I never knew how to read any computer specs before. This book at least gave me a starting point.

9) CR stands for Carriage Return and LF stands for Line Feed.

CR moves printing to the left of the page, and LF moves printing down one line. My first encounter with these codes was not pleasant. Due to some differences in how Windows and Linux use them, I had a fun time cleaning GB-sized CSV files.

10) UNIX was born out of Bell Labs, which was a subsidiary of AT&T. Because of anti-monopoly policies against AT&T, the company could not market UNIX and had to license it to others starting in 1973.

The rest is a moshpit.

I learned so much from this book I probably could have another list of 10. Some concerned things I encounter daily that I really should have known. For example, I never thought about why hexadecimal colors had the letters ABCDEF. Or why Silicon Valley is called Silicon Valley. Or what Stack Overflow refers to. Others were much more technical. This book steps through circuits and gates and adders and latches and selectors, etc. It became too difficult to follow and to trace what’s happening in each piece of the hardware. But that only made me appreciate how complicated yet simple computers are. It’s all electrons and 0s and 1s. The magic is in the billions and billions of calculations.

 

The Alchemist

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This is a story about a boy pursuing his destiny. It got cheesy at times, but ultimately it’s a self help book. Follow your dreams and you’ll succeed. Most importantly, sometimes you have to give up what you have to get back even more.

1) “He realized that he was feeling something he had never experienced before: the desire to live in one place forever.”

If anything, I feel the opposite more and more now.

2) “The heat lasted until nightfall, and all that time he had to carry his jacket. But when he thought to complain about the burden of its weight, he remembered that, because he had the jacket, he had withstood the cold of the dawn.”

This is how I feel when I walk into a heated building in the winter. It’s possible that I sweat just as much in the winter.

3) “‘It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.'” – the old man

This book didn’t change my opinion that luck is a huge factor if your stats (ability – both hard and soft, determination, support system, etc) are within 1 std of the average of the relevant population. When applying to college, the population is the pool of applicants. At a job, it’s all your colleagues. By definition, you are very likely to be within 1 std of the average. If you’re not, you are probably at the wrong place to begin with. I’m keeping an open mind about the importance of luck, but right now this is my view.

4) “And better still to be alone with one’s books. They tell their incredible stories at the time when you want to hear them.”

Same with Netflix. And texting. And Uber. Empowering the user.

5) “‘And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.'” – the old man

The one-liner of the book. Maybe I’m in the wrong universe.

6) “‘I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.'” – the merchant

A positive spin on the hedonic treadmill. At least you’re always running.

7) “‘If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise…. If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.'” – the seer

The extent of desirable fortune telling doesn’t go beyond fortune cookies.

8) “‘When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.'” – the alchemist

Well thought-out internal validation >> external validation

9) “‘That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too'” – Santiago

Are we talking about League here?

10) “‘What good is money to you if you’re going to die? It’s not often that money can save someone’s life.'” – the alchemist

Reminds me to start spending my SPG points.

The Alchemist is a quick and enjoyable read. I wouldn’t call it life-changing – as a lot of reviews suggest – unless you are lacking motivation. That said, it’s likely that someday I’ll reread this post and be inspired.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

I’ve made it a rule to not read biographies. I’m more intrigued by how things fit together and how organizations work. No one is a superhero. No one is perfect. Too often, people are put on a pedestal and portrayed as omnipotent. But I guess rules are meant to have exceptions. There were three major factors that got me to read Elon Musk’s biography. 1) Wait But Why articles – I’m rarely really inspired by reading about what people have accomplished – especially in recent history – probably because there has honestly not been much to celebrate (only one that comes to mind is that Obama has been elected president not once but twice, with the backdrop of overt racism in American society, and even this I consider more of a societal phenomenon than an individual achievement). 2) Appreciation for bringing technological advances to market – I’m sure there’s a lot of cool things happening (DNA, etc) probably even right here in Boston, but my daily exposure to clunky IT systems and planes that look like they have seen better days in the 90s has me worried about human progress. 3) I know people who work/worked at these Musk companies.

1) Musk used to tell people that “dark is only the absence of light” so there is no reason to be afraid of the dark.

What a rational human being.

2) Musk and his first wife Justine agreed to never let their children meet Musk’s father.

Do we all really need rough childhoods to do great things? It probably didn’t hurt his family was already very rich.

3) Musk wasn’t always an effective CEO, especially in the days of Zip2.

In 1996, Mohr Davidow invested $3 million into Global Link. The VCs hired a new CEO, changed the company name to Zip2, and came up with a new business model – selling to newspaper companies. Musk wasn’t seen as someone who could lead a company, and this early experience made him more adamant that he kept control of his companies in the future.

4) The board of X.com overthrew Musk as CEO and replaced him with Thiel when Musk was on a plane.

The merger of X.com and Confinity (Paypal) did not go smoothly, and once again people had no confidence in Musk running the combined company.

5) SpaceX first tested rockets at Kwaj in the Marshall Islands.

Sounds like an absolutely crazy time for these engineers. Imagine building and testing rockets on these remote islands for months.

6) Nuvomedia was founded in 1997 and created one of the earliest e-book readers – the Rocket eBook.

This book really hit home how long certain technologies have been around. E-readers were a thing in the last millenium. It has only recently become mainstream. Electric cars were a thing before gasoline-powered cars. We landed on the moon almost 50 years ago. So many things are scientifically possible and have been tested. Business and economics matter.

7) Falcon 1 became the first privately built machine to orbit the Earth on September 28, 2008.

This was 4.5 years later than the original date. As always, things take forever to do right. If anything finishes ahead of time, you should be very suspicious. Musk has a history of overpromising on deadlines, but he makes a good point that setting a later deadline in and of itself pushes back the final finish. The last Falcon 1 flight took place in July 2009 for the Malaysian government.

8) The total cost for Dragon was $300 million, about 10-30 times cheaper than ones built by other companies.

This is an outrageous ratio that shows how much better SpaceX is at what it does.

9) Musk almost sold Tesla to Google in 2013.

Tesla had a few weeks to convert its reservations into actual orders, and they did.

10) Ford claimed the name “Model E”, so Tesla went with 3.

Now it spells S-3-X-Y.

This biography was very easy to read and entertaining throughout. The last chapter felt a bit like a high school English paper when you had to address other points of view, then make a baseless claim that those PoVs were wrong, and conclude that you are right. Otherwise, the whole book was great. I particularly enjoyed reading about Musk’s early struggles with Zip2 and Paypal. Musk is painted as a genius now, although he still gets bad press for his actions. But people don’t hear about how he got to where he is now. It’s really hard to succeed. You need to be good. But you also absolutely need to be lucky. I also really enjoyed the sections dedicated to how Tesla and SpaceX employees delivered on their jobs. They must be some of the most competent and resilient engineers in the world.

All the Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

#1 rule of life: happiness = outcome – expectation. ATLWCS’s hype led to its downfall. I really don’t see how this book got its crazy great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (which generally has lower ratings). Maybe I’m tired of reading stories about how kids overcame adversity during WWII. I found myself thinking of the Book Thief the entire time. That said, the imagery is excellent and definitely something special.

1) “‘Now that shell, Laurette, belonged to a violet sea snail, a blind snail that lives its whole life on the surface of the sea. As soon as it is released into the ocean, it agitates the water to make bubbles, and binds those bubbles with mucus, and builds a raft. Then it blows around, feeding on whatever floating aquatic invertebrates it encounters. But if it ever loses its raft, it will sink and die…'” – Dr. Geffard

Genius survival method. And a great metaphor for Marie-Laure.

2) “He says everyone remembers the last war, and no one is mad enough to go through that again.”

They say WWIII will never happen because the global economy is too interconnected. I doubt this is sufficient reason.

3) For their final test, each of the fourteen-year-olds is forced to climb a ladder haphazardly nailed to a wall. Once at the top, twenty-five feet above the floor, their heads in the rafters, they are supposed to step onto a tiny platform, close their eyes, and leap off, to be caught in a flag held by a dozen of the other recruits.”

Group mentality and trust is powerful but dangerous.

4) “‘Did you know,’ says Marie-Laure, ‘that the chance of being hit by lightning is one in a million? Dr. Geffard taught me that.’ ‘In one year or in one lifetime?’ ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘You should have asked'”- Marie-Laure and Etienne

90% of statistics mean nothing without context.

5) “‘Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.'” – Frederick

Everyone has his/her utility function and his/her stats. Just gotta maximize given whatever constraints life gives you.

6) “The entropy of a closed system never decreases.”

In the end, trying to make everything uniform just turned into more chaos.

7) “So really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”

It didn’t hit me what the book title was about until this line 2/3 into the book. The radio is light we cannot see.

8) “Gray was stone. Brown was soil. Pink was flesh.”

One example of the great imagery here.

9) “She finds she can sleep only two or three hours at a time. Phantom shells wake her.”

This is real. I heard bombs and alarms for two months after Israel.

10) “She is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her.”

It’s mindboggling that there are people who lived through WWII (like my grandma). How do they reconcile their childhood with what’s going on now? This is why I’m wary of asking older people for advice. Everyone grew up in different times. What worked 40 years ago doesn’t necessarily work now.

If Book Thief became a movie, ATLWCS will most likely follow suit. I’ll try my best not to watch it.

Asia’s Cauldron

Asia's Cauldron

Asia’s Cauldron by Robert Kaplan

Every time I come back from a foreign country, I read a book about it. I want to do it afterwards because I don’t want to have any preconceptions. I want my mind to be a blank slate when I first land in a new country. I also find that I get more out of a book when I can link the places the author describes to places I just saw in real life.

After my vacation to Singapore and Malaysia, I thought I would start off by reading about Lee Kuan Yew, but everything I found seemed too heavy. I’ll likely get to Lee Kuan Yew at some point, but this book definitely provided a nice introduction to the politic forces that shape the major countries around the South China Sea.

1) East Asia is really a seascape.

Nowhere in the world is the sea more important in determining regional dynamics. The emphasis is on the navy, not on the land army. It’s also a conflict that has no real moral objective. It largely has no ideological or religious overtones.

2) China is to the South China Sea what the US is to the Caribbean.

Just as the US naturally dominated the Caribbean and drove out the Europeans (with Monroe Doctrine/Roosevelt Corollary), China will come to overpower the South China Sea as it grows economically.

3) In 1947, the KMT came up with an 11-dash line claiming territories in the South China Sea. China currently pursues a 9-dash line claim.

China and Vietnam have signed an agreement over sovereignty claims of the Gulf of Tonkin, and it is no longer part of the cow’s tongue.

4) Finlandization describes the process by which a large country like China overpowers its smaller neighbors while letting them keep their sovereignty.

The term comes from Finland’s relationship with the USSR during the Cold War.

5) The demographic and geographic diversity of Malaysia helps mitigate animosity towards China.

Malaysia consists of both the peninsula and Borneo, the latter of which was dragged into the federation to boost Malay numbers in opposition to the ethnic Chinese population in Singapore. It was quite weird that we had to go through specific checkpoints when we traveled between the peninsula and Sarawak/Sabah.

6) Some of Lee Kuan Yew’s foundational principles were born out of his experience during the Japanese occupation.

Lee Kuan Yew saw that the Japanese were brutal and succeeded. As a result, he advocated for harsh punishment, not soft policies.

7) Morocco and Oman are two Middle East countries that show the possibility of benevolent autocracy.

The author spends time comparing and contrasting the dictator-like leaders of Asia (Lee, Mahathir Mohamad, Chiang) and those of the Middle East. Asia has shown that democracy and freedom do not necessarily go hand in hand. A mix of Confucianism and Islam has succeeded in bolstering Asian countries where leaders have supreme power not at the expense of economic progress.

8) The Philippines is the most underdeveloped major country in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is a de facto American colony, and it’s so weak that China sends nonmilitary boats to signal its influence. The fact that the Filipino land army is larger than the navy is a sign that it’s more focused on domestic issues.

9) Chiang Kai Shek and the KMT transported the most valuable pieces in Beijing over to Taiwan when they fled – this collection is now housed at the National Palace Museum.

I thought the National Palace Museum was quite impressive. It never crossed my mind how all the treasures on display ended up in Taiwan.

10) Chiang was a harsh dictator in the early days of Taiwan, and the Korean War helped Taiwan avoid a Chinese invasion.

There seems to be active debate on Chiang’s role in history. How does one weigh his harsh rule against his role in setting up one of the most symbolic democracies in the world?

Overall, this was a great book on a topic that is very rarely discussed in American media. As the Middle East continues to be a mess, the South China Sea will fall further into the background. Will the US move armed forces out of the region to combat terrorism elsewhere? If so, this would only benefit China. The more time China has, the more influence it will exert over the region.

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I didn’t expect this book to focus so much on the meaning of one’s profession, but that is my main takeaway. What does it mean to do a good job? For a butler, does that mean absolute trust in his boss?

1) “‘It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.'” – Stevens

Can you really see the best of a country by never going outside? What does that say about your country?

2) “But you will no doubt agree that the very best staff plans are those which give clear margins of error to allow for those days when an employee is ill or for one reason or another below par.”

Management 101. Everything always takes at least double the time it should take. If it doesn’t, it’s probably done wrong.

3) “But from my observation of Mr Farraday over these months, he is not one of those gentlemen prone to that most irritating of traits in an employer – inconsistency.”

Management 102. Although I think the key to being consistent is that you need to have thought things through beforehand.

4) “It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness.'”

Ok, England. I guess this book does take place in the 20th century.

5) “Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of.”

Ok, England. This reminds me of the time when the immigration officer asked me if I was studying in Europe and I said no because I was studying in England.

6) “‘I mean, all this we’ve been talking about. Treaties and boundaries and reparations and occupations. But Mother Nature just carries on her own sweet way. Funny to think of it like that, don’t you think?'” – Mr. Cardinal

How many lives have been lost due to arbitrary borders? But then again, I don’t see an alternative.

7) “What I mean is that we were ambitious, in a way that would have been unusual a generation before, to serve gentlemen who were, so to speak, furthering the progress of humanity.”

Every generation claims they are unlike the last generation because they care about the meaning of their work. Still true now.

8) “‘Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?'” – Miss Kenton

Stevens’ devotion to his work is admirable, but I think he would be an awfully frustrating person to be around.

9) “‘People do have a political conscience of sorts here. They feel they ought to have strong feelings on this and that, just as Harry urges them to. But really, they’re no different from people anywhere. They want a quiet life. Harry has a lot of ideas about changes to this and that, but really, no one in the village wants upheaval, even if it might benefit them. People here want to be left alone to lead their quiet little lives. They don’t want to be bothered with this issue and that issue.'” – the doctor

It’s a privilege to be able to afford not needing to care about politics.

10) “‘You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?'” – Stevens

After a whole book of saying how he kept his dignity by never straying from his duties, Stevens realizes that having thoughts of his own is also a prerequisite for dignity.

Overall, this book was quite enjoyable. Easy reading but also thought provoking. I’m looking forward to reading some of his other works.

Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus by Andrew Zimbalist

The Olympics and World Cup are two of my favorite global events. I love the concept of bringing the world together, and I admire the ability to make these logistic nightmares happen. The 2002 Japan-Korea World Cup was probably the peak of my interest in soccer. I remember watching the Italy-France final of the 2006 World Cup in French class. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a historic moment and also my earliest memory of streaming sports. The last time I was in Vancouver, I visited some of Olympic stadiums and found them to be in great shape. Given all this, I was somewhat surprised by the backlash in the Boston community over the city’s bid for the Olympics. I was even more surprised to hear that essentially no one wants to host future Winter Olympics. So I decided to read more about the history and the workings of these mega events.

1) The term ‘soccer’ likely came from ‘socca’ which is short for ‘association’ – for Association Football, as opposed to Rugby Football.

‘Soccer’ allegedly came before the word ‘football’. Blasphemy.

2) Confederations Cup is a quadrennial tournament that takes place in the host country of the World Cup one year before.

How have I never heard of this before?

3) The modern Olympics started as a competition for amateurs. In 1987, the IOC voted to allow professional tennis players to play. In 1991, all restrictions on professionals were lifted.

Astonishing that professionals weren’t allowed to compete. How does this make sense? This was only 24 years ago.

4) The Nagano host committee burned their financial records.

Holding my breath for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

5) Winter and summer Olympics took place in the same year until 1992.

Another crazily recent change.

6) FIFA requires a host country to have 8 modern stadiums, each of which can hold at least 40,000. One must have capacity for 60,000 for the opening match, and one must have capacity for 80,000 for the final match.

Lowering these limits seems like an easy fix that can help alleviate part of the white elephant problem.

7) Favelas are slums in urban Brazilian cities. Many were destroyed to make room for the World Cup.

I suspect this word will become a household term very soon.

8) Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff declared that public employees could go home at 12:30 on days with World Cup matches.

Brazil seems extremely incapable of withstanding the economic shocks of hosting two global mega events.

9) LA 1984 is the poster child for a financially successful Olympic Games.

According to the author, LA was able to make a profit mainly because there were no competing bids for the Olympics, so LA had leverage. LA said it would not spend public money on the games, and IOC was forced to guarantee against any operating losses.

10) Sepp Blatter was involved in a watch gifting scandal in September 2014.

How the Swiss maintains such a great reputation despite blatant money scandals is amazing. Switzerland is the best PR machine in the world.

We need events like the Olympics and the World Cup. For me, they are great things to look forward to. You get a chance to see countries showcase themselves or at least try. More importantly, they are a reminder that, controversies aside, human beings are always striving to be the best. Of course, things are never as nice as they appear, especially on TV. Both the Olympics and the World Cup need to get their acts together. Some of that starts with the market. If no one wants to host, what will the committees do?

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

I requested this book without knowing what it was about and ended up having to rerequest it a few times because eloans are so short and I barely have time to read nowadays. But I’m glad I did. The main character has a very memorable voice, and it was a unique way to gain some insight into how people with Asperger’s think.

1) If I don’t know what someone is saying, I ask them what they mean or I walk away.

#WDYM. Or maybe I should be walking away more.

2) I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.

This is why people love dogs. Simple and to the point. I guess cats are like this as well. You always know a cat hates you.

3) Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

Numbering the chapters by prime numbers is a brilliant idea.

4) The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words meta (which means from one place to another) and ferein (which means to carry), and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.

This is possibly the greatest meta there is, and I’m not sure I get it.

5) When people tell you what to do, it is usually confusing and does not make sense.

Truth.

6) I think people believe in heaven because they don’t like the idea of dying, because they want to carry on living and they don’t like the idea that other people will move into their house and put their things into the rubbish.

Succinct summary of my views on religion.

7) But in life you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others.

Yes. Sometimes you just don’t like something. Then you should say no. Because otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

8) But this is really silly because it is just stars, and you could join up the dots in any way you wanted, and you could make it look like a lady with an umbrella who is waving, or the coffeemaker which Mrs. Shears has, which is from Italy, with a handle and steam coming out, or like a dinosaur.

I’ve never tried to understand constellations because of this exact reason.

9) And if something is nearby, you can find it by moving in a spiral, walking clockwise and taking every right turn until you come back to a road you’ve already walked on, then taking the next left, then taking every right turn and so on.

I’m having trouble visualizing this, but seems like a valid strategy to use.

10) And people who believe in God think God has put human beings on the earth because they think human beings are the best animal, but human beings are just an animal and they will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and it will put human beings into a zoo, like we put chimpanzees and gorillas into a zoo.

This is a scary thought, but also a reminder that this world is so much more than human beings.

I found out afterwards that this book has been adapted into a Broadway show. Maybe I’ll go watch it the next time I’m in NYC.

The New York Nobody Knows

The New York Nobody Knows

The New York Nobody Knows by William Helmreich

I decided to read this book to learn more about New York beyond my externships, food adventures, and US Open trips. Given the premise that the author had walked 6000 miles around New York, I expected chapters on different geographic areas. But the book is actually organized by sociology topics like immigration and gentrification. I think it ended up losing a lot of potential since the topics were quite vague and the chapters mostly jumped around different anecdotes.

1) There are over 1 million Asians in New York, larger than LA and SF combined.

90% of these statistics about city demographics need a footnote explaining how the cities are defined.

2) Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island was once the largest municipal landfill in the world.

Now it’s being converted into a park.

3) The Green Acre Park, with its waterfall, was built by the Rockerfellers at 51st Street between 2nd and 3rd. 

How have I never seen it?

4) Dyker Heights in Brooklyn is famous for its Christmas lights.

I would need a car. Or it will be cold. Is it worth it?

5) Bingo was first invented in Italy in 1530 and called “The Clearance of the Lot in Italy”.

It came to America in the 1920s and was first called beano, after the beans players used.

6) Hudson Heights, part of Washington Heights, actively changed its name for better branding.

One of the best things about New York is the nomenclature for its different areas.

7) New York Housing Authority has a Section 8 program in which low income families pay up to 40% of their income for rent. 

NYCHA covers the difference between the fair market rent and the family’s portion.

8) Sukkot is the Jewish holiday (Feast of Booths), during which Jews eat all of their meals inside booths covered with plants.

Maybe I would have known this already if I had paid attention to the movie in Israel class.

9) The Flushing Remonstrance was signed in 1657 to protest the persecution of Quakers.

The Bill of Rights is monumental, but the concepts in it weren’t new.

10) 50% of American-born Asians married non-Asians.

What? That seems way too high.

All in all, this book was somewhat repetitive and I didn’t come away with any big ideas or changed views about New York. Yes I know there are a lot of immigrants and Brooklyn is gentrifying. The author was definitely shining New York in a positive light and also unsurprisingly spent a good chunk of the book talking about issues surrounding the Jewish population. If anything, I think I’m more likely to go explore the other 4 boroughs. New York isn’t just Manhattan.

Rise of ISIS

Rise of ISIS

Rise of ISIS by Jay Sekulow

ISIS is obviously a new hot topic. That means I want to read about it, but that also means whatever book I can find out there is probably bad. This is the catch with books. You can never really read about a recent topic and expect a great book. Can you imagine how many books have been written about the euro crisis and Greece over the past few years? These books won’t have the whole story and might even get torn apart by what eventually happens. But then I guess they are still good to the extent that they are a snapshot of a publishable opinion at the time.

Finding a book on ISIS was difficult. I first picked up ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss, but I found it to require way too much background knowledge. After reading a chapter, I was utterly confused and decided to stop. Then I tried this one by Jay Sekulow, which ended up on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s debatable whether this book is even about ISIS. A good chunk of it focuses on Hamas – which Sekulow argues is analogous to ISIS. And the rest is borderline a diatribe against leaders and institutions that have not outright supported Israel. I definitely got the sense that the author simply didn’t have enough information about ISIS beyond what we already see on the news. I was quite disappointed.

1) ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) evolved from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Apparently, AQI was so ruthless that Al-Qaeda at large rejected them.

2) Islam splits the world into house (dar) of Islam and house of war.

The house is Islam is territories where Sharia law rules.

3) Shias believe that the caliph (imam) has to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis think that any believer can be the caliph.

There were 3 caliphs before Ali, who the Shias contend is the first legitimate successor of Muhammad. This Shia-Sunni distinction might be the most important “difference between” to know in the world.

4) ISIS has over $2 billion in cash and assets.

I’m surprised this number makes them the richest terrorist organization. This really hinges on the definition of a terrorist organization.

5) In Britain, more Muslim young men volunteer to be part of ISIS than to serve in the British army.

No timeframe, no definition of young. Almost a meaningless statement, but interesting nonetheless.

6) Hamas was formed on the eve of the First Intifada, as an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

7) Hamas fired more than 2900 rockets into Israel during the summer of 2014.

Those rockets, I won’t forget.

8) Boko Haram is a jihadist group in control of large parts of Nigeria. It has pledged allegiance to ISIS.

It’s easy to forget that Africa is very much a part of the terrorism story.

9) Obama’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) limits involvement to 3 years.

Apparently this AUMF has not been voted on yet.

10) ISIS released all Turkish hostages in September 2014.

Turkey is probably in the most interesting position here, both politically and geographically. What will happen to the Kurds?

Knowing the author’s background makes it much easier to understand a book. As I read this book, I increasingly got the sense that it was really more about the author’s opinion than the facts. I don’t dispute the facts in it, but the book is definitely normative rather than positive. The most unsettling parts were the multiple sections on how the UN and the left want the terrorists to succeed. After I finished the book, I looked up Jay Sekulow. “Frequent guest on Christian Broadcasting Network and Fox News”. Everything makes sense now. I have to say, given I’m very much immersed in a liberal, left world, it’s refreshing to hear what the other side has to say.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of borrowing e-books. How do these library networks connect to Amazon? And if I download the book file, how does it expire? One of my loans ended yesterday, but I can still read it. I’m confused. Another thing about the ebook library system is that the selection isn’t there yet. Almost every book I want to read is not available. And those that are available have huge lines. That’s how I ended up reading Gone Girl.

1) “Because isn’t that the point of every relationship: to be known by someone else, to be understood? He gets me. She gets me. Isn’t that the simple magic phrase?”

Being understood and not having to explain yourself is one of the best feelings.

2) “‘This place is so white, it’s disturbing,’ said Amy, who, back in the melting pot of Manhattan, counted a single African-American among her friends.”

NYC is really diverse, but, from what I see, it’s a heterogeneous collection of pockets of homogenous people. By race or class. Not saying that’s bad. It just makes sense.

3) “George shows up about twenty minutes later – sheepish, tense, a terse excuse about work, Insley snapping at him, ‘You’re forty minutes late,’ him nipping back, ‘Yeah, sorry about making us money.'”

There is no better comeback. And like any great excuse, it ends up making the situation worse.

4) “Sleep is like a cat: It only comes to you if you ignore it.”

Wow. This analogy is perfect. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat, except every time you think about sleep, the cat dies and you can’t sleep.

5) “Republicans go to Sam’s Club, Democrats go to Costco.”

Mindblown. I don’t know anyone who goes to Sam’s Club. I don’t even know if there are Sam’s Clubs here.

6) “Does anyone do anything profusely except apologize? Sweat, I guess.”

I can’t think of other uses of “profusely”. Maybe thanking? What a waste of a great word. I’m going to make an effort to use this adjective as much as possible, even if it profusely doesn’t make sense.

7) “But I don’t really think Nick would hurt me. I just would feel safer with a gun.”

Diary Amy hits the nail on the head. What would she think about gun control laws?

8) “I am stuck here on earth, and every day I must try, and every day is a chance to be less than perfect.”

Dark thought: you can only ever make more and more mistakes.

9) “The media has saturated the legal environment. With the Internet, Facebook, Youtube, there’s no such thing as an unbiased jury anymore. No clean slate. Eighty, ninety percent of a case is decided before you get in the courtroom.”

I really want to try being a jury member. I wonder how my biases and the social group interactions would play into my decision.

10) “Penny in penny in. The money that they waste goes to the underfunded public schools that their bored, blinking grandchildren attend.”

I’m all for casinos. It’s a choice. If people want to flush their money down the toilet, let them. As long as it generates government revenue and gets used properly, it’s a reallocation of wealth that works.

 

Gone Girl is the most entertaining book I’ve read in a while. I didn’t see the big twist coming at all, and I enjoyed the alternating chapters of Nick and Amy narrating. I hated the ending at first, but now that I’ve had some time to think about it, it’s the perfect ending for the story. Looking forward to watching the movie.

A Wild Sheep Chase

A Wild Sheep Chase

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Reading Murakami has become a great way to get my mind out of the daily grind and into a quasi fantasy but realistic world. I’m planning to read all of his books at some point, and I’ve decided to start from the beginning. There are earlier works, but A Wild Sheep Chase is the oldest that I could find. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 apparently aren’t even in English yet. Going into this, I expected A Wild Sheep Chase to be similar to Wind Up Bird Chronicles and Kafka on the Shore. I ended up not liking it as much – mostly due to its less interesting characters and somewhat straightforward plot. There were magical ears and a man in a sheep costume, but by Murakami standards, this book was tame.

1) “‘Say there’s an hourglass: the sand’s about to run out. Someone like you can always be counted on to turn the thing over.'” – the girlfriend

I’m not sure what this says about the person. I know I do it.

2) “Now there are two types of eleven-in-the-mornings for a small scale company like ours. That is, either absolutely busy or absolutely unbusy.”

Where’s my absolutely unbusy eleven-in-the-mornings? Although the guilt and unease from doing nothing might be worse.

3) “‘To hold down advertising is to have nearly the entire publishing and broadcasting industries under your thumb. There’s not a branch of publishing or broadcasting that doesn’t depend in some way on advertising. It’d be like an aquarium without water. Why, ninety-five percent of the information that reaches you has already been preselected and paid for.'” – the partner

True thirty years ago. Still true now. Even social media, arguably the most direct medium of information dissemination, lives and dies by advertising.

4) “‘Time is really one big continuous cloth, no? We habitually cut out pieces of time to fit us, so we tend to fool ourselves into thinking that time is our size, but it really goes on and on.'” – the Rat

The thing that we have the least control over.

5) “‘Now people can generally be classified into two groups: the mediocre realists and the mediocre dreamers.'” – the black suited secretary

If everyone were mediocre, does the concept of mediocrity exist?

6) “If a group of aliens were to stop me and ask, ‘Say, bud, how many miles an hour does the earth spin at the equator?’ I’d be in a fix. Hell, I don’t even know why Wednesday follows Tuesday. I’d be an intergalactic joke.”

I thought about this and got stuck. I really should know at least how to calculate this, if not the actual number.

7) “Still, writing the history of one town obviously imposed the necessity of bringing it up to a ‘today.’ And even if such a today soon ceases to be today, no one can deny that it is in fact a today. For if a today ceased to be today, history could not exist as history.”

I’m as confused as I was when I first learned about recursion.

8) “‘Ididn’twanttogoofftowar. Anywaythat’swhyI’masheep. Asheepwhostayswherehebelongsuphere.'” – the Sheep Man

Every Murakami book I’ve read talks about war in a negative way. How much of the modern Japan ethos stems from WWII?

9) “Like my ex-wife had said, ultimately every last cell of you is lost. Lost even to yourself. I pressed the palm of my hand against my cheek. The face my hand felt in the dark wasn’t my own, I didn’t think. It was the face of another that had taken the shape of my face.” 

A reminder that a part of you dies every second, millisecond,…

10) “‘But real weakness is as rare as real strength. You don’t know the weakness that is ceaselessly dragging you under into darkness. You don’t know that such a thing actually exists in the world.'” – the Rat

 

All in all, I thought this book had a few too many deus ex machina (having some is okay if they are exciting). But as always with Murakami, it ends well. To me, unlike the other Murakami books I’ve read, this one has a central question – what does the sheep symbolize? Weakness? Meekness? Conformity? The danger of pan Asianism? Or something that we endlessly search for and never find?

Traffic

Traffic

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

This is my first Kindle book. I’ve resisted going to ebooks for a long time since I like physical books and have had bad experiences with reading on my laptop. But my friends got me a Kindle for my birthday (Thanks!), so now I have no excuses to not try it. Even though the setup and navigation were much more user unfriendly than I had expected, the actual reading experience on the Kindle was nice. My eyes didn’t get particularly tired, and the real game changer is being able to read and still have two hands to eat. One annoying point though – I thought this book was super long. As I got to the point where I asked myself what more can this book talk about, it still said I was 64% through. But then the book suddenly ended. The rest were notes.

1) Pascal of the triangle also said, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact. That they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

Too wise.

2) In the US, the passenger side rearview mirror is convex. The driver side’s is not. In Europe, both are.

The convexity of the mirror allows drivers to see more. But by doing so, the objects in the mirror look smaller (think of how it’s fitting more in the same space, vs a flat mirror). We understand smaller objects to be far. Hence the warning on the mirrors – objects are closer than they may appear.

3) The actor observer effect says that when one is the actor, we tend to attribute behavior to the situation/environment. But when one is the observer, we tend to attribute the actor’s behavior to his/her personality.

This book is chuck full of social science terms. All in all, it must have referenced over 100 studies. It definitely got tiring really quick, but I liked this actor observer effect. Surprised I’ve never heard of it before.

4) It’s an illusion that we are always getting passed more than we are passing others.

Of course this is true, but reading a former “analysis” was still eye opening. When you’re breaking away, you zoom by a bunch of stopped cars in the other lane. But when your lane becomes the slow lane, you spend more time looking at the cars passing you.

5) The Hawthorne effect says that people in experiments change their behavior because they are in experiments.

This is probably the biggest problem in social science experiments, after p-value fudging.

6) Mormon crickets move as a giant group, but not as a cooperative swarm. It’s actually competition. When they get hungry, they try to eat each other. Each cricket wants to move away from the others trying to eat them but also towards those they are trying to eat. Staying in the group is better off than going off on its own.

I watched a Youtube video of these Mormon crickets. They are scary.

7) Braess’s paradox states that by building (closing) roads, travel time may get longer (shorter).

Braess’s paradox is a specific application of Nash’s equilibrium. An example would take too long to explain, but essentially, new roads may incentivize everyone to take a certain road versus spreading themselves out. But because everyone chooses the same road, it reduces everyone’s speed and ends up hurting all.

8) Traffic circles are not roundabouts.

Cars already in the circle must yield to cars entering. In roundabouts, entering cars yield to those already in the roundabout. Traffic circles are also typically larger and feature traffic signals. I feel like I knew this distinction at some point. Probably when I was taking my permit test.

9) Woonerven – “living yards” – get cars and people to coexist.

Woonervens started in Europe in the early 1970s. Pedestrians, cyclists, and cars share the same space.

10) In Bermuda, the island-wide speed limit is about 22 mph.

Wow. Island life is real.

Bonus) In Mexico City, female traffic officers have replaced all male traffic officers to fight corruption and bribing.

I can’t decide if this is sexist or progressive. It’s probably both.

I learned a surprising amount from this book (I feel like I say this a lot), and it’s definitely something that will come up in my mind as I drive around. Traffic is such a big part of everyone’s lives, but it feels like not enough people are putting in the effort to improve it. Tragedy of the commons is likely a culprit. Throughout the book, the author focuses on the human factor of driving, and how it’s the root cause of almost all driving-related frustrations. This was written in 2008 though. Although there is a chapter on self driving cars, the author doesn’t really consider the prospects of this possible paradigm change and how it can affect traffic. I think we are now at a point where self driving cars will happen. It’s a matter of when humans can accept it. What are the liabilities? How do you sue a car without a driver? If, like Vanderbilt claims, traffic is so much about human factors, does that mean self driving cars will solve the puzzle?

The Fish Can Sing

The Fish Can Sing

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness

 

Iceland was great. Blue lagoon. Jokulsarlon. Reindeer on the road. However, even though we were able to see a lot of different parts of the country, I felt like I didn’t get a good sense of the Icelandic people. One problem is that there just aren’t that many of them around. Outside of Reykjavik and the major tourist attractions, human beings were a rare sight. The ones we interacted with, like our Airbnb hosts, seemed decently nice but nothing stood out. I had always thought that Icelandic people were a distinct breed. After this trip, I would say they are just normal northern Europeans (or what I imagine to be northern Europeans, since I’ve never been there). Continuing my tradition of reading to learn more about countries I’ve just visited, I tried to look for one of those books that give a good overview of a country’s psyche. Somehow, I couldn’t find one for Iceland despite the claim that 1 in 10 people in Iceland have published a book (side note: Michael Lewis’ Boomerang has a memorable chapter on Iceland’s financial collapse). So I ended up reading a fiction book by Laxness, who is apparently one of the most famous Icelandic writers.

1) What does the sun cost, and the moon, and the stars? I assume that my grandfather answered it for himself, subconsciously: that the right price for a lumpfish, for instance, was the price that prevented a fisherman from piling up more money than he needed for the necessities of life.

What ends up happening is necessity creep. Saving for medical needs and accidents becomes a necessity. Then expensive dinners and vacations. Then a big house and the newest car. It’s all part of the necessities of life.

2) He paid no more attention to motor-cars than to any other tin-cans rolling along the gutter.

Wow, I’ve never thought of cars as tin cans. To a large extent, I guess they are.

3) “The Bible sticks in my throat like an old piece of fish-skin; I gulped it as quick as I could, And it hasn’t done me much good” – Grandmother

This short verse by the cryptic grandmother is a perfect summary of the importance of fish and Christianity in Iceland.

4) “If I can do something for a person who comes to me, then I am content….I know perfectly well that I am nothing to anyone. But the middle finger is no longer than the pinkie if one measures both against infinity; or if one clenches one’s fist.” – the superintendent

The metaphors are real.

5) Anyone who could decline correctly could also think correctly; and anyone who could think correctly could live correctly – with God’s help.

I had forgotten what declining a Latin word even means. But I’ll never forget the rhythmic recitations that Ms. Durkin drilled into my head. a ae ae am a. ae aram is as is.

6) “Old tunes do not become any worse simply because the new ones are good.” – Pastor Johann

One of the most exciting things in life is that the number of songs I like will only increase over time. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped liking a song because it’s old. I might not listen to it as much, but when I do listen to it, I still know all the words and it’s just as good.

7) “Well, I always thought that the largest population group in the world was the one that knew nothing at all, either about Pharoah’s rebirth or anything else. I was taught that it was only knaves or fools who had ready answers for every question.” – visitor from the south

Yes. I’ve probably quoted passages about this topic a million times. If you don’t know, you don’t know. Don’t make things up and force people to believe you.

8) Once I had been apprehensive about losing the security which reached as far as the turnstile-gate at Brekkukot; now I was apprehensive about the new paths which would open up when I stopped treading the well-worn route up to school in the morning, in a half-circle round the Lake, and back home again in the afternoon. Where was I to go on all the mornings which I had yet to wakeup to after this?

Growing up, leaving home, leaving school. Where to now? (except I haven’t left home)

9) I can at least say to her family’s credit that Iceland had won as regards this woman’s bearing and appearance, and no doubt her very soul as well, because she never wore Danish dresses and never let herself be lured to visit Denmark.

A clear theme in the book is the tension between Iceland and Denmark. The true Icelanders don’t dress like the Danes. According to Wikipedia, Iceland became independent in 1918. This book takes place before then.

10) “And what I am trying to say, my dear children, friends, relatives, and worthy compatriots, is this: salt-fish has to have a ribbon and bow. And it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbon and bows; it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing just like a bird'” – merchant Gudmunsen

There is a giant plot twist in the book tied to the concept of global marketing – which totally caught me offguard given the timing of the story. Even more interesting is how central this concept is to modern Iceland. The country doesn’t have much going for it and makes a name for itself through tourism – and doing a very good job at that. Apparently the fish in Iceland can still sing.

 

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected. I had low expectations since it’s a borderline high school English class kind of book where you can analyze themes and other random things that the author didn’t intend at all. It ended up reminding me of one of my favorite books – Huck Finn – although the Mark Twain work is much funnier. Laxness’ book starts off slow but picks up, especially in the second half. There are a bunch of interesting characters, and there was a certain level of suspense throughout.

 

 

Young Money

Young Money

Young Money by Kevin Roose

 

Fear-mongering about Wall Street is nothing new, but it’s something that is very relevant to me. Not too long ago, I had half a foot in the door. Whether I made the decision myself to step back or was pushed out, the end result was that I didn’t end up in finance after college. A lot of people around me did though. And this book is about them. Somehow, I actually don’t know anyone in IBD or S&T that well. I don’t think this is an accident. Everything is the way it is for a reason. Anyhow, I thought it would be interesting to see what Wall Street junior bankers had to say about their lives. Without a doubt, this book paints a very bleak picture of working at the big banks as a minion, and I was constantly reminded how lucky I am to have gotten out early.

1) The two and out program was introduced in the early 1980s.

Roose says that it was a deliberate move by the banks to brand themselves as places where smart college grads could spend two years learning useful skills and then move onto other things. To this day, most conventional post-grad job choices follow this idea. Banks obviously do this. Consulting firms do this. And, to a much less extent, with their vesting schedules, I would say tech firms and mature startups also do this. I think it’s actually a great idea. There’s no shame in “not knowing what to do with your life” when you graduate from college. Why not spend two years inside an established system in NY or SF, make good money, and see where to go from there? I honestly see no harm in the basic idea of two and out. It more or less puts a formal spin on a natural process. Ultimately, if you excel and like your job two years in, you’re likely to keep accelerating upwards. If not, you should leave.

2) Goldman bought J. Aron in 1981.

The current GS CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, started there. It’s also the reason why GS supposedly has a good commodities desk.

3) The number of women working in finance fell by 2.6% between 2000 and 2010.

For all the noise you hear about companies pushing diversity at the workplace, this type of statistics shows up very often and across industries. As you move up the corporate ladder, the numbers get worse. Where are women going? Especially when women have increasingly outperformed men at attaining education. Why don’t people talk about the industries that are female dominated? Is it all about the money?

4) Fashion Meets Finance is a mixer for male bankers and female fashion workers.

It’s sad that it exists, but it makes too much sense.

5) Back office knowledge is one reason for the divide between front office and back office.

I’ve never thought about this. Someone who has worked in the back office knows how things are actually done. When equipped with that knowledge, they can do a lot of damage in the front office. Roose lists bankers from Societe Generale and UBS who have done this and gotten caught.

6) Black Diamond is a Harvard student-run hedge fund.

This club reminds me of the MIT poker club and 21. They can definitely make a movie out of Black Diamond.

7) In 2010, 35.9% of Princeton seniors with jobs went to Wall Street.

2010 was not a good time to be in finance. Yet, over a third still chose finance. Roose repeatedly cites these statistics to show that fewer and fewer Ivy grads are choosing Wall Street, but this number is crazy high.

8) Kappa Beta Phi is a secret fraternity of the most powerful on Wall Street.

The chapter on KBP is the highlight of the book. I had never heard of this club before, and Roose’s story about his infiltration into the club’s annual dinner is funny and mindblowing.

9) Houston Street is pronounced “How”-ston.

No way.

10) Roose predicts that banks will stop their two and out programs to target people who want to be lifers.

I don’t think stopping two and out programs will affect applicant pool much. The best candidates at top schools are very unlikely to go into recruiting with the mindset of finding a company to stay at for the next 5/10 years. I would also argue that banks should not target potential lifers since they are people who are probably more narrow-minded. Information asymmetry is a problem here too. How can banks tell who is truly going to stay and not burn out? At the end of the day, even without an explicit two and out program, most junior bankers are going to leave. That’s because of two clear reasons. First, the brightest prospects likely have more to gain by jumping from firm to firm or industry to industry. Secondly, banks, like most companies, have a pyramid structure. It’s impossible for everyone to keep moving up. Would Ivy graduates be okay with plateauing at the junior levels? No. Roose’s point is more nuanced than “targeting lifers”. He thinks that banks should recruit those who are truly into finance and won’t burn out easily. For example, banks should hire a great fit from a tier 2 school over a top candidate from an Ivy who has no real interest in finance. Does Wall Street want to be a safety net for Ivy graduates or not? In their best interest, they should continue to be, given the benefits of network effects at the top schools. Ultimately, Wall Street needs to become a place where students don’t feel like they have to give up their lives for the money and the status. So far, it hasn’t had to do this. But the cost-benefit analysis no longer favors Wall Street. Recently, banks drastically increased their entry level pay by 20-25% to rewrite the cost-benefit equation. This is a bad sign. It shows that they are more willing to throw more money at the issue than to change Wall Street into a place where people don’t feel guilty working at.

 

I didn’t expect much from this book since I’m somewhat connected to the Wall Street circle and have briefly seen how it works. I still enjoyed the book though. It was a quick read, and this genre of interview-based social or historical commentary is one of my favorites. At times, I wondered how much of the book is made up, especially because it had such an anti-Wall Street tone. I’ll give Roose the benefit of the doubt and instead admire his ability to get a good number of junior bankers to risk their careers and talk about their lives.

Redeployment

Redeployment

Redeployment by Phil Klay

 

I first heard about Redeployment when it won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. I was somewhat surprised since I had thought the book was a collection of real war stories. It turns out that all the short stories are made up. Together, they give a wide range of perspectives on what it was like to be part of the war. There’s the grunt, the sergeant, the PsychOps, the Mortuary Affairs officer, and even the chaplain. There’s the vet who shoots his own dog, the vet who loses his girlfriend, the vet who studies at Amherst, and the vet who gets a $160K job at a top law firm. I didn’t find each individual story to be very powerful, but this book is a perfect example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

1) “When I got to the window and handed in my rifle, though, it brought me up short. That was the first time I’d been separated from it in months. I didn’t know where to rest my hands. First I put them in my pockets, then I took them out and crossed my arms, and then I just let them hang, useless, at my sides.”

This is like me without my laptop. Marines -> Rifle: Consultant -> Laptop

2) “We didn’t want to talk to anybody else. I got on my PSP, played Grand Theft Auto, and Timhead pulled out his Nintendo DS and played Pokemon Diamond.”

Even though this is fiction, there’s no way anyone could have thought of soldiers playing Pokemon in Iraq unless he actually witnessed this. Pokemon has no boundaries.

3) “Crazy thing was, now I didn’t want to. I mean, to curl up with this girl, who’d made me beg? I was a veteran. Who was she?”

A good number of the stories touch upon the pros and cons of being a Marine in terms of getting girls. Pros: brave, badass, uniform. Cons: time away, injuries, pity points. What are the confounding variables here? The decision to join the army is a clear signal for other traits. This topic is perfect for a Reddit thread, although I think the Reddit population would be quite biased.

4) “We remade the Ministry of Agriculture on free market principles, but the invisible hand of the market started planting IEDs.”

IEDs are improvised explosive devices – planted by Iraqis – that were the primary cause of death for soldiers.

5) “‘I am Iraqi.’ she’d said on my previous visit. ‘I am used to promises that are good but not real.'”

The book puts a spotlight on the phoniness of US reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Check multiple boxes by making it look like they helped Iraqi women start businesses. Take a picture of Iraqi kids in baseball uniforms swinging a bat.

6) “He had come to the Americans because they had the best doctors, the only safe doctors, not because he liked us. He’d already lost a son, he told me, to the violence that came after the invasion. He blamed us for that. He blames us for the fact that he can’t walk down the street without fear of being killed for no reason.

I find the civilian aspect of war fascinating. How do wars happen? Usually it’s a small group of extremists. Or the government. For a lot of people, it’s out of their hands. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to suffer the consequences.

7) “Nobody wants to be the guy in the squad who hasn’t killed anybody, and nobody joins the Marine Corps to avoid pulling triggers.”

Like any other organization, the Marines has a social element, which means it has social problems. What happens when people feel that they need to prove themselves? At the individual’s level? Or even for the US as a whole?

8) “The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, ‘I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.'”

I disagree with two things here. 1) Everyone risks his/her life for something bigger. It just happens to be something else. 2) Civilians are not ‘worthless.’ Obviously, this is a fictional character, so it’s more of a commentary on how veterans struggle to fit in with the rest of society, where most people cannot comprehend their sacrifices. The same case can be made for scientists or other people who may think more highly of themselves because they serve the public good. The act of comparison is the fundamental problem here. If I say I’m better than ‘selfish’ people who only care about making money for themselves, that’s also a problem.

9) “If the Marine Corps was any indication, idealism-based jobs didn’t save you from wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

Don’t choose the job the aligns with society’s ‘ideal’ values. Choose the job that aligns with your values. If your values happen to be society’s ideal values, then by all means, go for it.

10) “I can see that, the shrapnel thudding into shattered corpses, the force of it jerking the limbs this way and that.”

Best imagery in the book.

 

Maybe it’s because I don’t personally know any veterans, but this book didn’t strike me as very memorable. The part I got the most out of was seeing how different roles reflected on their war experiences. Otherwise, the stories didn’t make a big impression on me. The slew of abbreviations also didn’t help. Especially at the beginning, I had to look up everything. The only one I’m likely to remember is IED, since that showed up in almost every story. I’d still recommend it though, and at the very least, I think it’s a much needed book for veterans.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Tuesdays With Morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

 

Bookstores suffer a lot from the showroom effect. But that doesn’t take away from their being the best place to chill for half an hour when you’re early for a meeting or dinner, especially when it’s subzero degrees outside. This happened a few weeks ago at the B&N at the Pru, where I stumbled upon Tuesdays with Morrie. It seemed like a famous and highly recommended quick read. I usually don’t do quotes for non fiction books, but Mitch Albom essentially compiled a list of life advice quotes by Morrie, so here they are.

1) “The culture we have does not make people feel good about ourselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

2) “If you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them too.”

3) “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

4) “There is no experience like having children. That’s all. There is no substitute for it. You cannot do it with a friend. You cannot do it with a lover. If you want the experience of having complete responsibility for another human being, and to learn how to love and bond in the deepest way, then you should have children.”

5) “The truth is, when our mothers held us, rocked us, stroked our heads – none of us ever got enough of that. We all yearn in some way to return to those days when we were completely taken care of – unconditional love, unconditional attention. Most of us didn’t get enough.”

6) “You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven’t found meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. You can’t wait until sixty-five.”

7) “We’ve got a form of brainwashing going on in our country. Do you know how they brainwash people? They repeat something over and over. And that’s what we do in this country. Owning things is good. More money is good. More property is good. More commercialism is good. More is good. More is good.”

8) “The truth is, you don’t get satisfaction from those things. You know what really gives you satisfaction? Offering others what you have to give.”

9) “I believe in being fully present. That means you should be with the person you’re with. When I’m talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I am not thinking of what’s coming up this Friday. I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I’m taking.”

10) “Here’s what I mean by building your own little subculture. I don’t mean you disregard every rule of your community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things – how we think, what we value – those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone – or any society – determine those for you.”

 

I feel like I just wrote a Buzzfeed article, one of those “10 things You’ll Learn in Your 20s” traps. No matter how bad they are, I almost always read them. They are usually decent. But they rarely actually make a difference. Similarly, I don’t think this book changed my views on anything, except point 4 – which I hadn’t really considered before. Tuesdays with Morrie is a nice story, but my takeaway is that, just like putting things on your Google calendar and color coding them, reading or listening to advice is only useful up to a certain point. After that, it’s time to act and make it happen. Scrolling through a list of 23 things you should do when you are 23 doesn’t count.

Tubes

Tubes

Tubes by Andrew Blum

 

A couple months ago, my work involved looking at the telecom industry. I immediately realized that I had no idea how phone/cable/tv worked. What is DSL? What is cable? How are fiber optics different? I wouldn’t say I am particularly ignorant about this topic. I really think most people have no clue what these things are beyond Verizon and AT&T commercials. So as part of my research, I started watching Youtube videos and ended up on a TED talk by Andrew Blum. His talk seemed interesting – although I don’t think I finished it. Afterwards, I looked him up and found that he had written this book, a book about the physical aspect of the internet. Naturally, I read it.

1) TeleGeography is a market research firm that makes maps of the internet, like the submarine cable map.

Market research firm. This term has taken on a new meaning for me in the past couple months. I now am very keen on finding out how research firms get their information. TeleGeography does surveys – once again highlighting how surveys are very underrated in society. If people don’t tell other people what they know, no one will know what they know.

2) The system of IP address is built on trust. In 2008, Pakistan Telecom declared that they were YouTube.

For two hours, people looking for Youtube were directed to PT. The changed address was cascaded through other internet providers, none of whom bothered to check and stop the error. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this accident before. It’s about as good click bait material as any.

3) Leonard Kleinrock’s ARPAnet (funded by Department of Defense) is considered the beginning of the internet.

The first message between the interface message processor at UCLA and its counterpart at the Stanford Research Institute was sent on 10/29/1969. This was the birth of the internet.

4) Al Gore’s High Performance Computing Act of 1991 is often credited for or ridiculed for “inventing the internet.”

For years after the start of ARPAnet, the internet was mostly a network of universities. Even the NSFnet which came later had a strong flavor of government and education institutions. Some argue that this act was what pushed the internet into the private sphere.

5) MAE East in Ashburn, VA is one of the earliest Internet Exchange points (IX).

Internet exchanges are places where internet providers meet. The largest are all in Europe (Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and London). The US exchanges are generally smaller because of a higher prevalence of direct peering – where one network is plugged into another network, instead of going through a centralized machine – the switching fabric.

6) In 2008, Sprint and Cogent depeered and 3.3% of global addresses were cut off from the rest of the internet.

Peering is an art form that this book claims is very human. It’s about network engineers talking to each other and agreeing to a deal. Money may or may not be involved. Sprint is a Tier 1 backbone, along with Level 3 and NTT.

7) Facebook lists its peering information at facebook.com/peering.

This is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen under the facebook domain. FB is very open about its peering policy and tells everyone where they can connect to its network. Seeing the information was also the moment when I decided to believe the information in the book – all of which could have been made up since I had zero prior knowledge.

8) Brocade’s MLX 32 router is one of the most commonly used at IXs.

I’m not sure if this is still true given the book is a few years old. And this really is just a piece of trivia. The router consists of the chassis (the skeleton physical structure), the backplane (etched paths between the router’s entrance and exit), the line cards (for deciding which path a bit should take), and the optical modules (essentially extremely fast blinking lightbulbs).

9) The Luzon earthquake of 2006 knocked 600 GB of capacity offline.

Again, surprised I had never heard of this. Because of providers’ desire to find the shortest and safest path, almost all submarine cables between Japan and rest of Asia go through the Luzon strait. This earthquake essentially cut off Taiwan, HK, China, and SE Asia from the global internet for a while.

10) According to a 2010 Greenpeace report, 2% of the world’s electricity usage can be traced to data centers.

Assuming this number is right, it must be a lot more now. Also interesting is that climate and landscape conditions are much more important in the selection of a data center location, compared to real estate cost – which apparently is a non-factor.

 

I learned a lot from this book. The birth of the internet. Internet exchanges. Peering. Submarine cables. Data centers. What is the internet? All things I had never paid attention to before. When all you need to do is ask for the wifi password, it’s easy to forget the physical infrastructure supporting it all. Another thing I will remember from this book is how many words I had to look up. I can argue that my vocabulary shrinks by the day. But I think Blum – understandably – is someone who focuses on physical things, which happen to be a weak area in my vocabulary. Sometimes I had to look up 4-5 words on a single page. This book doesn’t even try to be academic and esoteric. But, in the end, I now know what ‘chassis’ and ‘conduit’ mean.

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

 

One of my friends gave me this book for Christmas. It seems like everyone I’ve talked to has read this. As my friend said, this book is perfect for me since it’s an easy-to-read story with a historical backdrop. I found myself comparing this book to The Kite Runner, maybe because of the similar color schemes on the book cover. Overall, I liked The Book Thief, but I think The Kite Runner is on another level.

 

1) “Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.”

This line sounds like it’s straight out of a 9th grader’s poetry homework. Reminds me of

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye

Thanks Ms. Chase – for making me still look for synesthesia, synecdoche, etc whenever I read anything.

2) “Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky. Giant obese clouds. Dark and plump. Bumping into each other. Apologizing. Moving on and finding room.”

Great personification. I really enjoyed the narrator’s descriptions of the sky throughout the book.

3) “‘I’m waiting,’ she said….The framed photo of the Fuhrer kept watch from the wall. ‘Heil Hitler,’ Rudy led.”

A leader is by definition a leader only if he/she has followers. To me, followers are the truly scary ones. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and some people are bound to have “crazy” thoughts – see Hitler. But when you blindly follow someone and suppress your own thoughts, that’s scary.

4) “I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me.”

Death – the narrator – brought this book to life. It gave some very interesting perspectives on war like this one.

5) “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.”

This seemingly dysfunctional family takes in a runaway Jew and the daughter of a Communist. How can you not like them?

6) “Papa was more philosophical. ‘Rosa, it started with Adolf.’ He lifted himself. ‘We should check on him.'”

Rosa blamed the snowman in the basement for getting Max sick. Papa has a different reason in mind.

7) “‘There were stars,’ he said. ‘They burned my eyes.'” – Max

Another great description of the sky.

8) “The first soldier did not see the bread – he was not hungry – but the first Jew saw it.”

We only notice things that matter to us.

9) “For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.”

Right?

10) “What good are the words?”

Near the end, the author juxtaposes the power of Hitler’s words and the importance of Liesel’s books to her. Even better is when Max paints over the pages of Mein Kampf and writes his own story. The metaphors.

 

The Book Thief makes me want to do 3 things. One, learn more about anti-semitism. Two, read Mein Kampf – at least part of it. Three, watch the movie. I’m always hesitant to watch film adaptions after reading a book. It always ruins what I imagine all the characters are like, how they talk, how the settings look, etc. So instead of watching that right away, I’m going to watch some tennis.

Being Mortal

Being Mortal

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

 

Judging from how long it took me to get my hands on this book, Being Mortal is one of the hottest books on the market right now. Not surprising, given its 5 star rating based on over 1700 ratings on Amazon. It also focuses on an increasingly popular and ironically trendy topic – aging – if only because it’s becoming relevant for an ever increasing portion of the population.

What I didn’t expect was how emotional this book is. I think everyone who reads this will naturally think about their grandparents and parents. Have they gone through end-of-life care? What were the difficult choices that the family had to make? And I also thought about myself. What do I want when I’m old and not capable of taking care of myself? I have the benefit of hoping that medical advances will have solved much of the problem when I get to that stage, but I wouldn’t say that’s a realistic expectation.

Ultimately, Being Mortal tackles the dilemma of providing care that would prolong life at all costs versus providing care that would make life – however long – worth living. To answer this question, we must know what people actually want as their life winds down. How do we do that?

1) Del Webb, an Arizona real estate developer, popularized the term “retirement community.”

In 1960, he launched Sun City in Phoenix exclusively for retirees.

2) By 85, 40% of people in industrialized countries have no teeth.

This is the most astonishing of many scary numbers. Over 50% develop hypertension by 65. 25-50% of muscle weight is gone by 80.

3) The most dangerous thing that can happen to an elderly person is falling.

Each year, 350,000 Americans fall and break a hip. 40% end up in a nursing home, and 20% can never walk again. Gawande focuses on the slippery slope of falling. It signals loss of body control and usually leads to complications that never go away.

4) Nursing homes came about as a solution to hospital overflow.

Before WWII, hospitals were just a place to stay. Being in a hospital did not mean that you got better medical treatment than at home. After WWII, with medical advances, this changed. The Hill-Burton Act of 1946 financed 9000 new medical facilities in America. Meanwhile, the establishment of Social Security did not stop the elderly from ending up in poorhouses. The extra income was ineffective at solving end-of-life medical problems. Thus, the sick elderly ended up in hospitals. After some lobbying, in 1954, hospitals were allowed to build custodial units for people who needed time for recovery. The nursing home was born. Then, when the “substantial compliance” threshold was created for Medicare coverage, nursing homes were approved as facilities where care for the elderly would be covered. By 1970, there were over 13,000 nursing homes.

5) Home is where you decide how you spend your time, how you share your space, and how you manage your possessions.

Home is about you. You make the decisions. If you’re omnipotent, I guess the world is your home.

6) Keren Wilson started assisted living around 1990. Her company Assisted Living Concepts went public.

By 2010, the number of people in assisted living and the number of people in nursing homes were comparable. However, the term assisted living has definitely morphed and is somewhat used today to market to people who try to avoid nursing homes at all costs.

7) Doctors often overestimate how long their patients will survive.

According to one study, the average estimate was 530% too high.

8) An MGH study showed that palliative care extends life and has additional benefits.

They had 151 patients with stage IV lung cancer. Half got the regular oncology care. The other half got that plus visits with a palliative care specialist. The second group stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice earlier, reported experiencing less suffering and lived 25% longer. In fact, hospice is becoming a very popular choice – with 45% of Americans dying in hospice. People used to die in homes, then they died in hospitals/nursing homes. Now they are going back home.

9) Daniel Kahneman writes about the Peak End rule in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

People tend to focus on the best/worst moment and the last moment.

10) According to Hindu mythology, when a person’s remains touch the Ganges River, they achieve eternal salvation.

Therefore, many people spread ashes into the river. Gawande was told to drink some of the water as part of the process and came down with an infection.

 

The end of life is scary. You can no longer make decisions for yourself. Your body doesn’t listen to you. Your family might not listen to you. The last thing you need is for your doctor to not listen to you. Gawande is a great storyteller. The book follows individuals with unique needs and situations – illustrating everything that he thinks is wrong about how end-of-life care is done right now.

One aspect that he didn’t touch on as much, perhaps intentionally, was the financial incentives. However, he did briefly mention the ramifications of having patients pay and the fact that doctors get paid for chemotherapy but not for discussing alternatives with their patients. I’m not well informed on how fee-for-service works with Medicare and what direction it’s going, but I’m certain that finance plays a big part in how things are done right now. From the incentive to keep trying different treatments to the cost benefit tradeoffs of living at home vs a nursing home, money drives a lot of decisions. It would be great if Gawande could write another book on that. I’m sure it would be a best seller.

Economics – The User’s Guide

Economics - The User's Guide

Economics – The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang

 

I first stumbled upon this book when I was looking around for a book that explains the different schools of economic thought. I’ve always been frustrated by how the history of economics is essentially not taught at all in college. And I still can’t keep my Keynes and Friedman and Austrian straight. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really find ANY book devoted to this purpose. I’d like to believe that, as a consultant, my Googling skills are at least competent. So I’m tempted to think that almost no one has really written a go-to piece for this. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising. Anyone who has the pedigree to write about all these schools would have to be very well versed in economics and established in the profession. And you probably can’t go far in academia unless you’re a strong proponent of one school (better to have both supporters and haters than neither). This is likely a case of hindsight bias, but the point is, I had a very hard time finding any resources until I read about Chang’s book here.

Chang claims that his book challenges people not to get trapped by what’s taught in college or reported in the media. I think he does a very good job of stepping back and looking at a very wide range of topics in economics and different ways of looking at each of those topics. He also makes a huge point that the mainstream theories now mostly belong to one school – Neoclassical – that has dominated for the past few decades. Ultimately, he says that economics is not a science and there’s no right answer. I agree.

1) Isaac Newton was the highest officer at the Royal Mint. By setting a mint ratio between gold and silver, he effectively put Britain on a gold standard in 1717.

Add to the list of Newton’s laws.

2) It’s estimated that 30-50% of international trade in manufactured goods is actually infra-firm trade.

This is one example of how large corporations, much more so than individuals (rational or not), drive the economy.

3) Household work is not included in GDP.

Not a surprising fact, but not something that I’ve thought about. Household work is estimated to make up 30% of GDP (not sure how great this estimate is, or how to measure this at all). But it does mean that work by women are underrepresented in the most prominent number in economics.

4) Different schools of thought vary in how they view the basic unit of the economy, how rational individuals are, how certain the world is, the relative importance of exchange/consumption/production, and policy recommendations.

The Neoclassical school – the current mainstream economic thought – is based on an economy made of selfish, rational individuals living in a certain world with calculated risk. Exchange and consumption are emphasized, and the school allows both free market and interventionism policies. This indeed sounds very much like all the economics classes I’ve taken. Take the utility function. Maximize based on consumption. Etc.

Contrast this with Keynesian, which emphasizes the class and the importance of fiscal policy. Or the Schumpeterian school, which focuses on production and technological innovation.

5) The ratio of financial assets to GDP in the US went from 400-500% in the 1950s-1970s to over 900% by the early 2000s.

It’s really tough to wrap your head around how large finance is. And this gives a point of reference. It’s really big. Doesn’t anything over 100% mean it’s technically created out of thin air? I’d need to verify that, but that’s a scary thought.

6) Between 2001-2010, the largest US companies distributed 94% of their profits.

Yet another number that I had no idea about before. I know companies paid out dividends, but 94% is huge. I’m guessing that this has come down as companies have trended towards hoarding cash lately.

7) The Kuznets curve says that inequality rises then falls through economic development.

This book probably doesn’t do the theory justice, but this sounds like a totally made up theory and is a perfect example of how certain theories come about as things happen. These theories explain the recent past extremely well. Then some shock happens and the world functions completely different and the theory is totally useless.

8) 1 in 5 people today live on under $1.25 a day. 

Every problem I have is a first world problem. And also true of everyone I know.

9) The call for depoliticization of the economy in a democracy results in an anti-democratic effort that gives more power to the people with money.

Yes. I don’t know how people keep saying you should take politics out of the economy. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s like saying take the beef out of steak. Chang makes two very great points on this topic. One – Economics used to be called political economy (which is what I studied in Oxford). Two – Democracy is one-person-one-vote. Free market is one-dollar-one-vote. As a follow up, democracy and free market don’t come hand in hand. Just because that seems to be true in the U.S. does not mean that’s how it works.

10) The term “banana republic” originated from countries that were poor dictatorships that got taken advantage of by large corporations like the United Fruit Company. An example is Honduras.

This makes me a little uneasy about wearing BR stuff. Knowing this now, why did the founders name their clothing store Banana Republic? A quick Google search suggests it has do with its safari-themed beginnings. Ok.

 

An expert is someone who doesn’t want to learn anything. Instead of listening to experts asserting their own beliefs about a topic that has no definitive answers, go out and find the answer for yourself.

The French Intifada

The French Intifada

The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey

When I first heard about this provocatively named book, I put it on my reading list. With a subtitle like “the long war between France and its Arabs”, how can I not? As with a lot of books on the list, if it doesn’t get read immediately, it gets pushed down further and further. But then Charlie Hebdo happened, and this book became #1. I especially wanted to see if this book predicted the shooting.

The book is broken out into four main sections. The first talks about the banlieues of France – suburbs of major cities where the large Arab population struggles to find its identity. The sheer number of violent attacks is somewhat shocking. The other three parts are devoted to the colonial history of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

1) The idea of laicite is strong in France.

Laicite is the notion that it is illegal to distinguish individuals based on their religion. It sounds like a more hardcore version of the separation of church and state. Hussey claims that it was a way of keeping the Catholic church in check and promoting the republican values of France. An interesting point near the end of the book is that, as a result, they don’t know how many Muslims are in prison.

2) Lyons is one of the most right wing and Catholic cities in France.

Lyons, the unofficial capital of Deep France, is the second largest city after Paris, but this is a little known fact because Lyons doesn’t position itself that way. Hussey talks about the 1981 riots here and brings up the concept of the souchards – those who are rooted and belong to France – vs the immigrants.

3) France invaded Algeria in 1830 and some even watched the invasion like a performance.

The conquest was supposedly instigated by the fly whisk incident, in which the Dey – Ottoman governor of Algeria – hit the French consul Deval.

4) The colons in Algeria came to be known as the pied noirs from the black shoes they wore.

These pied noirs introduced an interesting dynamic where they wanted total control and thwarted France’s attempts to appease the natives. They opposed the three main political forces at work – integrationist, nationalist, and Islamic. Side note: for Arabs, there are two different strands of nationalism. Qawmiyya (tribe) refers to pan-Arab nationalism, while wataniyya (homeland) refers to a specific region.

5) The war for independence in Algeria was sparked by incidents on Toussaint Rouge (All Saints Day) in 1954.

The nationalist group FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) killed pied noirs, including two teachers in a bus.

6) Albert Camus and Zinedine Zidane are both Algerians.

Camus is portrayed as pro-Algerian and laments France’s mishandling of Algeria – especially in its use of torture. Zidane has been called a harki – a derogatory term for Algerians who fought for the French during the war of independence.

7) Wahhabism is the puritan form of Islam from Saudi Arabia. It’s somewhat synonymous with Salafism, but I don’t know enough to say that. 

Islamist forces began to take over in 1980s and 1990s, with extremist, anti-West groups forming. They were especially against Jahiliya – the state of ignorance that they believe people are in until they truly become Muslim. A civil war between FLN and the Islamists began in 1991 when the Islamic FIS gained a majority in the first round of elections.

8) Morocco is socially divided into the poor north and the rich south (Casablanca, Rabat).

Tangier is known as a seedy city in the north with heavy Spanish influence. The 2004 Madrid attacks are linked to Tangier, and Hussey paints the attacks as a payback to the French-favored south.

9) Ben Ali – and his Tunisia – was the most West-friendly North Africa ally.

Although Tunisia seemed peaceful and trouble-free from the outside, Ben Ali was a harsh leader who angered his people. When a vendor lit himself on fire in 2011 after a dispute with a policewoman, the Arab Spring began. Ben Ali was overthrown and fled to Riyadh. It was an embarrassing moment for Sarkozy and other high profile French leaders. Now, Tunisia is more unstable, and Hussey even mentions how the French population there has been receiving death threats as a result of a Charlie Hebdo publication.

10) The rise of Islamists has become a major issue for the West.

And this is exacerbated by the connection between North Africa and France. The population in France’s banlieues is an extension of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The more they feel they don’t belong, the more likely they are to turn to Islam. Best quote of the book: “‘Why not? I can’t get to France. There’s nothing else here now. Why not fight for God?'”

 

I’ve read a few reviews online, and they have not been very favorable. I can see why. The first strike against this book for me is definitely the typos. It’s amazing how one extra “a” or “the” can destroy credibility. This applies to making slides too. Secondly, the book doesn’t really do a good job of connecting the past with the present. A lot of it is plain history, with no serious attempt at analysis. I do give him credit though for a very enjoyable read. This book is definitely a great primer for learning about French influence in North Africa – a link that might prove to be crucial in solving the West vs Islam puzzle.

 

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

What does “Wind Up Bird Chronicle” mean? The wind up bird shows up early in the story. But that doesn’t mean it makes any sense. It sounds like it’s winding a spring. That still doesn’t make any sense. And the rest of this book doesn’t make any sense either. This is now my third Murakami book in a few months. Besides Norwegian Wood, the other books are so weird that there’s no way to summarize the plot. It’s difficult to even give a two sentence overview. Murakami paints this totally realistic life where totally surreal things happen. It’s not fantasy. It’s dreamlike yet not a dream. This book is a good 600 pages. But once it gets going, even though it feels like nothing really happens, the action is so captivating that it’s hard to stop.

Because there are so many great quotes, I might go over 10.

1) “Thirty seconds is all it would take to say, ‘I’ll be home late tonight,’ and there are telephones everywhere, but you just can’t do it.”

It takes one second to respond to a “Dinner?” text, but I still can’t do it.

2) “This was very different from the image of home that I had imagined vaguely for myself before marriage. But this was the home I had chosen. I had had a home, of course, when I was a child. But it was not one I had chosen for myself. I had been born into it, presented with it as an established fact.”

Sometimes having no choice is better because you don’t have to worry about making the wrong decision.

3) “‘There’s nothing you can do. There’s no way to prevent baldness. Guys who are going to go bald go bald. When their time comes, that’s it: they just go bald. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.'” – May

A great example of the above. But still, I hope the day never comes.

4) “‘But knowing what I don’t want to do doesn’t help me figure out what I do want to do. I could do just about anything if somebody made me. But I don’t have an image of the one thing I really want to do. That’s my problem now. I can’t find that image.'” – May

May is by far my favorite character. Her boyfriend died in a motorcycle accident. She carries around a boombox. She counts the number of bald people at the train station and even segments them by severity. And she ends up working at a wig factory.

5) “And when I thought about Japan, I began to feel as if I had been abandoned at the edge of the world. Why did we have to risk our lives to fight for this barren piece of earth devoid of military or industrial value, this vast land where nothing lived but wisps of grass and biting insects?” – Lieutenant Mamiya

A significant theme in the book is commentary on WWII. Stories about Japanese, Russians, Mongolians, and Chinese – complete with a Japanese soldier being skinned by a Russian in Mongolia. History is written by the victors. Especially if you live in the country that won. It’s so rare to read something from the German or Japanese perspective.

6) “‘Results aside, the ability to have complete faith in another human being is one of the finest qualities a person can possess.'” – Noboru Wataya

Noboru, Kumiko’s brother, is Toru Okada’s archrival. He doesn’t speak much in the book, but here he points out how Toru never questioned his wife’s loyalty before she ran away. Who can you completely trust?

7) “‘Stop agreeing with everything I say! It’s not as if you’re going to solve everything by admitting your mistakes. Whether you admit them or not, mistakes are mistakes.'” – May

Another gem from May. I don’t like it when people always agree or disagree with me. Agree first, then point out your disagreement with an “and”. Real life 101.

8) “Two-thirds of the earth’s surface is ocean, and all we can see of it with the naked eye is the surface: the skin. We hardly know anything about what’s underneath the skin.” – Kumiko

One thing from the National Museum of Natural History has stuck with me: Bioluminescence might be the most common way of communication between life forms. That puts things in perspective. It’s somewhat surprising how small a percentage of human beings seek to explore these parts of the earth. We only care about a minuscule part of this planet.

9) “A small company like hers made no provision for anything so grand as maternity leave. A woman working there who wanted to have a child had no choice but to quit.”

Where’s Abe?

10) “‘If people lived forever – if they never got any older – if they could just go on living in this world, never dying, always healthy – do you think they’d bother to think hard about things, the way we’re doing now?'” – May

Life doesn’t have meaning if it doesn’t end.

11) “‘I was nothing but a prostitute. A prostitute of the flesh. A prostitute of the mind.'” – Creta

One of the most surreal characters who throws Toru’s life into disarray is Creta, who sleeps with Toru repeatedly in his dream. He doesn’t know when he sees her in real life or a dream. If I had to pick one phrase to remember from this book, it would be “prostitute of the mind.”

12) “‘Names are, if anything, irrelevant.'” – Nutmeg

The concept of names is a recurring theme. The cat is originally called Noboru Wataya, after Kumiko’s brother. Then he becomes Mackerel. Toru meets Malta and Creta, named after Malta and Crete. Then he meets Nutmeg and Cinnamon. Nutmeg gives this name to herself on the spot here. Why do names matter?

13) “It has nothing to do with the war; it could happen to anyone anywhere. Everybody thinks it’s happening because of the war. But that’s not true. The war is just one of the things that could happen.” – Nutmeg

This is my interpretation. Yes you’re at war. But when you’re in a battle, just one on one. You don’t have to kill the other person. War is an excuse.

14) “But his voice would not come out, because the one he found in the bed was himself.”

What can be more scary than finding yourself in your bed?

15) “Lately, it’s really been bothering me that, I don’t know, the way people work like this every day from morning to night is kind of weird. Hasn’t it ever struck you as strange? I mean, all I do here is do the work that my bosses tell me to do the way they tell me to do it. I don’t have to think at all. It’s like I just put my brain in a locker before I start work and pick it up on the way home. I spend seven hours a day at a workbench, planting hairs into wig bases, then I eat dinner in the cafeteria, take a bath, and of course I have to sleep, like everybody else, so out of a twenty-four-hour day, the amount of free time I have is like nothing. And because I’m so tired from work, the ‘free time’ I have I mostly spend lying around in a fog. I don’t have any time to sit and think about anything. Of course, I don’t have to work on weekend, but then I have to do the laundry and cleaning I’ve let go, and sometimes I go into town, and before I know it the weekend is over. I once made up m mind to keep a diary, but I had nothing to write, so I quit after a week. I mean, I just do the same thing over and over again, day in, day out.” – May

This is why I don’t Vine anymore. There are only so many different cubicles to Vine.

May’s series of letters to Toru towards the end of the book are my favorite chapters. Genuine feelings from a friend to a friend, not knowing if Toru ever read the letters.

16) “Money doesn’t come with name attached.”

If money doesn’t have names, do people need to?

17) “I kept staring at the message on the screen, but still no Send mark appears. My own machine is still set to Receive. Kumiko is thinking about what to write next.”

I really wonder how difficult technology has made it to write a realistic present day story. This form of early chat client was a great addition to the story.

18) “The ‘present’ was a baseball bat.”

It would take too long to explain the significance of the baseball bat that a mysterious woman – who can voluntarily make her voice sound like Kumiko’s – gives Toru in room 208 of an imaginary (or was it?) hotel where Noboru (or was it?) dies but doesn’t die. It has to do with a guitarist who purposely burns his palms in a bar on the day of Kumiko’s abortion and who gets clubbed to death by Toru with said baseball bat. It also has to do with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle #8, a story that magically appears on Cinnamon’s computer screen which talks about Cinnamon’s father (I believe) and how he witnessed Japanese soldiers killing Chinese workers with a swing of the bat as WWII drew to a close. It also has to do with the sudden disappearance of the baseball bat from the bottom of the well in the backyard of a haunted-house-turned-fitting-house where Toru sits in darkness to think about himself.

19) “I’ll never understand why everybody else bothers to go somewhere way far away and pay good money to see some stupid movie instead of enjoying these people.” – May

These are the duck people.

 

Digging up all these quotes has made me realize again how great this book was. You never know what’s coming. It’s never what you expect, but it also is never shocking and seems to make sense. He makes me feel like these things can happen to me. Makes me question why people live the lives they live. Makes me question why I care about what I care about. That said, the book is a lot to digest. I think I’m done with Murakami for a while. But definitely looking forward to the next one.

 

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This book was Amazon’s best book of 2014. Apparently the judges selected it because this type of book never gets published anymore and they wanted it to become the blockbuster it deserves to be. Given that it’s her first book, Celeste Ng definitely did a great job. The story focuses on the death of Lydia and how her family falls apart as a result. The chapters alternate between the past and the present, letting readers know why the characters think and act the way they do following Lydia’s death. All five main characters in the family come to life and I felt connected to all of them – which is really hard to do. The mother struggles to stand out. The father struggles to fit in. The son struggles to impress. Lydia struggles to fulfill her parents’ expectations. The baby sister fails to be noticed. Throw in racism, jealousy, and Harvard. It’s a big mess.

1) “A vision of life without her sister in it had flashed across her mind. She would have the good chair at the table, looking out the window at the lilac bushes in the yard, the big bedroom downstairs near everyone else. At dinnertime, they would pass her the potatoes first.”

At the very beginning, it’s unclear if this book is mainly a mystery murder case. That’s why Hannah (the youngest daughter) thinking this is noteworthy. It turns out that, although Lydia’s cause of death is revealed really late in the book, it becomes assumed that she committed suicide early on in the story. Still, this passage reveals how much Lydia had to live up to and how neglected Hannah felt.

2) “Everyone’s name was false. Everyone hoped not to be found out and sent back. Everyone clustered together so they wouldn’t stand out.”

This described the father James’ family when he was young. They had just come to America by pretending to be someone’s relatives, so they had to blend in with the other Chinese people. This foreshadows James’ goal in life to fit in in a society where he was the only Asian. He wanted it so much that he would push it onto Lydia, who ultimately couldn’t do so because she too was the only Asian.

3) “‘You’re sure that he doesn’t just want a green card?'” – Marilyn’s mother

Marilyn’s mother (Lydia’s grandmother) strongly opposed her daughter marrying a Chinese husband. They would not talk for years after Lydia and James got married. Subsequently, the death of Marilyn’s mother would trigger a series of events that led to the fallout.

4) “He couldn’t make enough – his wife had to hire herself out.”

James was always thinking about how people thought of him, and he did not want Marilyn to have to work. This was the mid 1900s, and Marilyn’s desire to be a doctor who could hold her own was frowned upon.

5) “James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.”

James wanted his son to fit in. That meant playing sports and playing with other kids. But Nath would turn out to be interested in space and rockets. He got accepted to Harvard, but it was still not enough.

6) “It’s not your fault, her father had said, but Lydia knew it was.”

Marilyn ran away after her mother’s death. She didn’t want to be a housewife. Lydia thought that it was her fault that her mother had run away and would carry this burden with her forever. She would say yes to everything. She didn’t like physics. But her mother told her to do it. She didn’t like books for Christmas. But she said she did. She didn’t want her mother to run away again.

7) “Though Nath dreamed of MIT, or Carnegie Mellon, or Caltech, he knew there was only one place his father would approve – Harvard.”

No.

8) “Lydia thought of her parents’ car: all the indicators and warning lights to tell you if the oil was too low, if the engine was too hot, if you were driving with the parking brake on or the door or the trunk or the hood open. They didn’t trust you. They needed to check you constantly, to remind you what to do and what not to do.”

Did cars 40 years ago do this? It’s something I’ve never thought about – how your car thinks you’re dumb.

9) “You can’t have too many friends.”

James always told Lydia. Except Lydia only pretended to talk on the phone. She had no real friends, and her parents never knew.

10) “Ever since that summer, she had been so afraid – of losing her mother, of losing her father. And, after a while, the biggest fear of all: of losing Nath, the only one who understood the strange and brittle balance in their family.”

Nath doesn’t get much air time in the first half of the book, but he turns out to be the key of the story. He was the glue in the family. When Lydia found out he was leaving for Harvard, everything tipped.

 

Everything I Never Told You has very memorable characters. The story is also so real. I feel like this could have happened to any family. Maybe not now because it’s so hard to hide things now. It’s harder to run away. There are cameras and GPS tracking. It’s harder to pretend. There’s Facebook. Kind of like Serial. That probably can’t happen nowadays.

The Language of Food

The Language of Food

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

Yet another recommendation from Marginal Revolution. Cowen is a hardcore foodie, so I wasn’t surprised to see a post on this. The backbone of the book is Jurafsky’s blog. I read a few posts on there and figured the book would be interesting. It turned out to be full (almost too full) of information about how certain food terms and traditions came to be. Each chapter starts with a story about how SF is the greatest city on earth and then proceeds to dump dense information on the topic.

1) The entree usually refers to the first dish in France but the main dish in America.

In the 16th century, the entree began as a meaty dish served near the beginning of a meal. Over time, the order of dishes changed. For example, in the 17th century, the soup became the first dish. In the 18th century, the “a la francaise” style featured two main courses with all dishes served at once and hors d’oeuvres on the outside edges of the table. By the 19th century, “a la russe” became common and diners used minutes, which would eventually turn into menus. All in all, the French ended up keeping the “first” sense of the entree while Americans went for the “meat” part.

2) Ceviche, fish and chips, and tempura all originated from a Persian dish.

By the end of the book, it would feel like every dish in every country originated in Persia. The first such case study is the sikbaj, a vinegar-heavy fish dish. Jurafsky tells the story of how the dish spread throughout the Muslim world and by pirates to Europe. When it reached Peru, it became ceviche. Likewise, the Jews in Europe brought it to England as fish and chips and the Portuguese brought it to Japan, resulting in tempura.

3) Ketchup originated from a Chinese sauce.

This one was the highlight of the book for me. I can’t believe I hadn’t made the connection for 22 years. Ketchup, sounded out in Cantonese, literally means tomato sauce. However, the story is not that straightforward. It began with the Fujianese and their fermented fish sauce, which in Fujianese is also pronounced ketchup. They eventually brought it to Southeast Asia. From there, the British brought it to Europe and thus to America. At this point, ketchup was still not necessarily tomato based. It was in America where the trend towards sweeter sauces brought about the tomato ketchup.

4) Toast (bread) and toast (celebratory drink) are related.

In England, before the 17th century, people would put pieces of toast in their drinks for flavor and warmth. Also, host ladies were called the toasts of the party. Eventually, toast took on the meaning of “toasting” to the host lady.

5) Turkeys are called turkeys because of an intentional trade secret.

The Portuguese imported guinea fowls from West Africa through the Ottoman Empire. These birds came to be called a bunch of names, one of which was turkey. At the same time, they were bringing back what Americans now think of as turkeys from America (evidence of turkeys as far back as the Aztecs). These two types of birds were put together at a trading center in Antwerp. Because the Portuguese didn’t want others to know about where and what they traded, the birds got mixed up. Thus we have our turkey.

6) Negative differentiation means that we have more words to describe specific cases of “bad”.

All happy families are the same. All unhappy families are different.

7) A word analysis of potato chip bags revealed that each negative word on the bag is correlated with four more cents per ounce.

Deny you’re bad. Deny you’re unhealthy. Gluten-free. Fat-free. No trans fat. No taste. No fun.

8) Flour came from “fleur”.

Fleur used to mean the best of something. When applied to a kernel of wheat, the fleur, which became flour, was the white powder that you get by processing the endosperm, considered the best part.

9) Macarons vs Macaroons vs Macaroni

I’m not sure if reading the book or writing about this will help me remember, and I don’t think Jurafsky did a great job laying out the story. It all started with the lauzinaj from – again – the Persians. This almond-based pastry would somehow evolve via two separate routes – pastry and pasta. The French standardized the modern day macaron (also macaroon in America). Separately, Jews popularized coconut macarons in America. Yes I’m still confused.

10) Ice cream flavors tend to use more back vowel sounds.

Front vowels like “i” and “e” as in Cheezits and back vowels like “o” and “a” as in Rocky Road convey different connotations. Thick and creamy ice cream is usually desired, so a lot of ice cream flavor names have more back vowels.

Overall, the best part of the book is the juxtaposition of the evolution of words and the evolution of food, especially how globalization has contributed to the spread of certain dishes. Now that one can virtually eat any cuisine in major cities around the world, what’s next for the language of food?

Dataclysm

Dataclysm

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

The market is flooded with social science/big data/”think smarter” books. I read a few a couple years ago and I’ve been hesitant to try another. They all say the same things and aren’t especially enlightening. I blame Freakanomics for this. However, a friend recommended Dataclysm to me, so I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, it only held up for a few chapters before I found myself trapped in pages of fluff.

1) WEIRD

A lot of social science research is done on WEIRD participants – white, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic because that’s the easiest people for professors to reach.

2) Wooderson’s Law, based on Dazed and Confused, states that men’s tastes don’t change.

I’ve never seen this movie, but ok.

3) Prafall Effect states that a competent person becomes more likable after making a mistake.

Is perfection boring? Is it better to make a mistake (maybe on purpose) and fix it?

4) Nostalgia used to be called Swiss sickness.

It’s always nice to find out where words come from.

5) The average word length of the top 100 words on Twitter is longer than those of the Oxford English Corpus.

4.3 vs 3.4. At first, this seemed surprising, but on second thought, there’s no room for extraneous words in tweets. There’s an important footnote saying that hashtags like #reallylongwordsthatarenotwords were not counted.

6) Pixar put bathrooms in the center of its office to facilitate small talk among different teams.

Having worked at 9 offices now, I know how work environment means everything. Do you get depressed the moment you walk in? Do you have a 360 view of Boston? Do you work in a cubicle that echoes when you talk? I think companies should spend more money on interior design. It probably saves them money over time by increasing productivity and reducing turnover.

7) One of the most famous pieces of news to come out of OkCupid is its experiment with Love is Blind day, during which they hid pictures to see what effect it would have on messages and dates.

It turns out the relative attractiveness of the pair was not a factor in self reported happiness. To show that these people were not self selected, Rudder shows that they messaged hotter people more outside of this experiment. I still think his argument is weak though. Are these people just happy because they participated in the experiment and it wasn’t disastrous?

8) Women aren’t hired for their ability.

This is very controversial, but it’s an interesting point that I have never heard before – probably because it’s not politically correct. If there’s evidence that women aren’t hired for their ability, then can that partially explain why they don’t seem to perform as well? Very controversial, but at the very least, it’s possible.

9) Zipf Law states that the frequency of words used is such that its rank times the number of occurrences is constant.

The most popular words are much more popular than somewhat popular words. A type of power law.

10) #TeamFollowBack – what a brilliant idea.

One of the funniest parts of the book is the chart that shows a huge spike in the number of Mitt Romney’s Twitter followers.

 

The best way to summarize how I felt about Dataclysm is that near the end, I turned the page and saw the word “Coda.” The book was over. What. Ok. I’m glad.

 

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Learning a language is a huge investment with very limited returns unless you go out of your way to live or work in another country. On the surface, there is no downside to speaking more languages, but the opportunity cost of learning a language is big enough to have kept me from seriously trying to learn a language in years. Unless you put in a lot of effort, you’ll end up knowing how to say hello and ask where the bathroom is, with an accent.

This is exactly what happened to me with French. I spent a good eight years learning French in middle and high school. Given the caliber of our curriculum and teachers, those eight years of countless 40-minute blocks have largely gone to waste. Knowing that I could probably never master the French accent, I didn’t pursue it further in college and instead tried to keep up by reading French books. 4 years ago, I read Chamber of Secrets in French. It’s the only time I’ve read an HP book in any language. And it was really surprising how much I could understand. Now, 4 years later, I decided to test myself again by reading a simplified version of the first part of Les Mis.

Here are my top ten of the many words/phrases that I put into Google Translate (the majority of which I knew at one point):

1) Cela me generait – I’d be embarrassed

2) l’usine – factory

3) Depechez-vous – hurry up

4) tousser – to cough

5) l’eveque – bishop

6) l’orage – storm

7) Il se rend compte – he realizes

8) guerir – to heal

9) le poing – fist

10) le brouillard – mist

 

As I read on, I looked up fewer and fewer words. I’ve found this to be the most enjoyable part of reading French books. I felt myself learning with each page. By the last ten pages of this adaptation, I barely needed Google Translate. Another fun aspect is the piecing together of sentences. No language is richer than Latin in sentence construction, but trying to move words around to make sense of French sentences definitely made my brain work in ways it hasn’t for a long time.

I’m glad I decided to read in French again. It was not easy to find this book on the online catalogue since it was difficult to tell if the book was actually in French. It turned out that this was a “facile” adaptation, meaning that it was only part one (Fantine) and each chapter was dumbed down to 500-900 words. I might try to read at the “moyen” level, if I can find it. It might take another 4 years.

A Spy Among Friends

A Spy Among Friends

A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre

I had never heard of Kim Philby. After reading this book, I wonder how he’s not more famous. Philby was one of the top British intelligence officers throughout WWII and the Cold War up until his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963. He essentially pretended to spy on the communists, led top level operations, and passed all the information he got to the communists. And he did this while befriending other top officers including James Angleton, who was chief of the intelligence staff at the CIA. Every chapter is fascinating and fast paced. I just found out they are going to make a TV series based on his life. I have to say I’m not surprised.

1) General Noel Mason-MacFarlane made a formal request to assassinate Hitler from his balcony.

The general is not really part of the story, but his point is noteworthy. I have always wondered why so few leaders are assassinated, given that any leader is likely to be unpopular amongst a sizable group of the population. How did Hitler survive for so long? There certainly were assassination attempts, but none of them succeeded. Is this a win for his security team or a win for humanity (ex Hitler)?

2) MI5 is focused on domestic threats to security while MI6 is more for gathering intelligence outside of the UK.

The dichotomy is broadly analogous to FBI vs CIA, although of course these comparisons aren’t that accurate.

3) Kim Philby hated fascism and saw communism as the only defense against fascism.

I do remember learning something about this in high school history class. More memorable is the horseshoe imagery of the political spectrum, with communism and fascism at opposite ends of the horseshoe.

4) The Cicero Affair was considered one of the most serious diplomatic security leaks in British history.

Elyesa Bazna, the valet of the British ambassador in Turkey, which I learned to be a hotbed of spying and intelligence gathering, was an Albanian who gave away secret information to the Germans during the war. The impact of the leaks would have been worse had the Germans fullheartedly trusted Bazna. Interestingly, the Soviets were also wary of Philby, thinking that he might be a triple agent. It must be tough to have neither side trust you.

5) Vermehren’s defection brought about the downfall of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence gathering organization.

How often does a double agent ponder over whether or when to defect? How do you gauge how close you are to being exposed? How do you guarantee that the country you’re working for will treat you well?

6) The Americans and the British collaborated on Operation Valuable, which was an epic failure.

The Western forces tried to sneak insurgents into Albania to push back communism. Many of these Albanians were killed immediately. It’s unclear but likely that Philby tipped off the communists.

7) The defections of Burgess and Maclean brought suspicion on Philby.

Some people, especially the FBI and MI5 were starting to piece the puzzle together and suspected Philby of being a Soviet spy. However, Philby had enough powerful friends from MI6 and the CIA to support him. These two groups were looking at the same evidence, but came to totally opposite conclusions. Goes to show how powerful biases are.

8) One of the most interesting episodes in the book was the death of Lionel Crabb.

Crabb was known as one of the best frogmen in the world and was sent on a mission to investigate the Soviet cruiseship that Khrushchev travelled on during his diplomatic trip to the UK. Crabb died. MI6, led by Elliot, authorized the mission despite no top level approval. It was a diplomatic disaster.

9) Flora Solomon reignited the suspicion against Philby after he had spent many years in Beirut as a spy-journalist.

No book on 20th century history and politics is complete without some connection to Israel, and this book is no different. Solomon, a Zionist, got upset that Philby was writing pro-Arab articles in the papers and linked this to a conversation back in the 1930s in which Philby had tried to recruit her to be a Soviet spy. How Israel thwarts the best laid plans.

10) The final question in Philby’s story is whether Elliot let him run away to the Soviet Union.

The book offers no conclusion, but suggests that Elliot made no effort to keep a close watch on his friend, effectively giving him the go-ahead to defect to the Soviet Union. It’s certainly possible given their friendship and the fact that the Brits had no appetite for an embarrassing case over a Soviet spy who had dominated the British intelligence scene for years and had been cleared once before.

 

This book starts off a little slow but really picks up pace and is a thriller all the way to the end. I particularly liked the chapter titles, which are all cleverly thought out. Ultimately, the friendship between Elliot and Philby really drove the story and made the narrative much more personal and lively.

The Betrayers

The Betrayers

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

An ex-Soviet Israeli political figure escapes to Crimea, only to find his former friend who turned him into the Soviet authorities years ago. The setup is enticing. Even more, Kotler is being attacked by his political opponents for voicing opposition to the demolition of a settlement. Yes this is fiction. The whole story takes place over 24 hours and it moves quick. Overall, I was a little disappointed due to the lack of a climax in the story.

1) ‘But that’s the problem with sympathies. One keeps needing to prove them.’ – Kotler

That sucks -> I’m so sorry for your loss -> Actions -> ??

2) Kotler knew he wasn’t fast, but he wanted to please his father.

Eerily almost identical to the theme from Kite Runner. Is it really that important to not disappoint one’s father? I’ve never really thought about this, but now that I do, I’d agree.

3) ‘But who cares about the country if it destroys our family? The country doesn’t care.’ – Dafna

I can sort of relate this to the generational divide around the Umbrella Revolution. Also, one rule that I think everyone should live by: don’t cry for anyone or anything that won’t cry for you. Since things don’t cry, never cry over inanimate objects.

4) What was the point of a Jewish prayer? What was the point of it from the very beginning? One point: Zion. A return to Zion….Only in Zion was it not for Zion.

Given that I’m agnostic, the notion of a religious state is fascinating.

5) ‘Stand up, Mr. Tankilevich. If you are fit enough to do this, you are fit enough to go to the synagogue.’ – Nina

We are all guilty of this. Taking detours. Asking for help without trying first. Doing everything possible to avoid doing something else that seems too difficult. In the end, we are all probably better off just tackling the problem.

6) ‘Who shed more blood than the Russian people? But nobody gives use special favors, do they?’ – the Russian

Russia lost over 20 million people, about 14% of its population. The U.S. lost less than 500,000. It’s not all about the numbers, but it puts WWII in perspective.

7) First the Soviet sham, then the capitalist. For the ordinary citizen, these were just two different varieties of poison. The current variety served in a nicer bottle.

http://www.pictorem.com/Loop

8) This is what they had done when they withdrew from the Gaza settlements in 2005, and they were doing it again, as if a mistake stubbornly repeated could yield different results. To uproot thousands of your own people. To make casualties of them for no discernible purpose. It was gross incompetence. If you were not willing to protect your people, you should not have encouraged them to live in that place, and if you were not going to encourage them to live in that place, you should never have held the territory. There was no middle ground. Once you had committed to one, you had committed to all. The time for simply walking away had long passed. Now you stayed at any cost or exchanged a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh. That was all. Nothing else.

Probably the mainstream pro-settlement argument. And it’s hard to argue against it. Every action has consequences. Think about the consequences before taking actions.

9) ‘To force someone to perform a religious duty is an insult. An insult twice over. To the person and to God.’ – Svetlana 

10) A saint loved the world more than any single person, while a man loved one person more than the whole world.

You don’t have to be a saint.

 

Zero to One

Zero To One

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Is this a self help book? Or is this a book of advice which says it’s not giving advice? Most of the ideas in here are not groundbreaking, and – in most of the narratives – it feels like Thiel has the benefit of hindsight when describing why certain people and companies succeeded. Overall, he does keep driving one main point home. Competition is bad.

1) What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

My friend once asked me this. And I didn’t have to think much before giving him an answer. That truth is only what most people believe. Or, along similar lines, that science is a religion. Thiel’s answer is that the future of the world will be defined by technology, not globalization. He defines globalization and technology as orthogonal (horizontal and vertical). I’ve never thought about it like that. Whether or not it’s accurate depends on how you define these terms. Thiel almost defines globalization as one country copying another. In that case, I guess he’s right.

2) Competitive firms brand themselves as intersections. Monopolies brand themselves as unions.

I’m special because I serve British food AND I’m a restaurant AND I’m in Palo Alto. I’m not special because I’m a search engine AND I sell mobile phones AND I sell wearables.

3) Don’t disrupt.

YES. Disrupt is probably my least favorite buzzword. It has a negative connotation for both the “disrupter” and the “disruptee”. Why do you have to frame yourself as this rebel causing trouble? If your product and your business model are good, you’ll succeed. You don’t need to disrupt.

4) Matrix of Definite/Indefinite Optimism/Pessimism

D,O: US in 1950s

I,O: US now

D,P: China

I,P: Europe

This highlights one of the most distinctively American traits. It doesn’t matter how great or terrible it seems, Americans think they will win. I also agree with the whole matrix. A 2 by 2 is a very effective tool to analyze a situation and present it in an understandable way. I’ll never forget the ones I made to describe the sequester and the selfie.

5) The power of the power law.

This claim is similar to those about the flaw of averages. It’s a common mistake for people not to realize how important the outliers are. Thiel says that the best VCs only invest in a few companies. He also says that certain distribution strategies are exponentially more effective than others, depending on the company.

6) Igor is a fraud detection software used in Paypal.

Igor spawned the idea of Palantir. I’ve always wondered what Paypal and Palantir had in common.

7) Netflix has great PR.

Besides consuming billions of hours of free time and creating money out of thin air for early investors, Netflix has also managed to make an appearance in every article/essay/book that does a soft intro on machine learning. Were they even one of the first to use ML?

8) Your technology must be 10x better.

That’s why cleantech failed. And – in my opinion – why startups are hard.

9) 4 of 6 Paypal founders built bombs in HS.

Ok.

10) Scapegoats are the weakest but also the most powerful.

Because only they can solve the problem. Wow, that’s deep.

 

This book is a very quick read. Even though it’s a book on startups, it really shines not in telling you what you need to do to be a successful entrepreneur but in framing how the world functions and presenting an interesting perspective on why things are the way they are. In particular, his views on competition and monopolies and on the trend towards emphasizing luck are refreshing to read. Or even the title itself – Zero to One. Does a startup bring the world from 0 to 1, or from n to n+1 (for n>0)?

Unruly Places

Unruly Places

Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnett

This book is collection of short article-like chapters on special places. Almost half of each chapter is about the author’s philosophy on the relationship between people and places – topophilia. All in all, the writing is dull given the potential of the subject matter. Instead of a list of ten things I learned, I’ve made a BatchGeo map of the places in the book.

View Unruly Places in a full screen map

The Birth of Korean Cool

Birth of Korean Cool

The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong

If I had to name one country that has significantly risen in the totempole of the world in the last ten years, it would be Korea. Yes, if we were talking about politics or economy, Korea wouldn’t even be an afterthought. But in terms of my daily life, Korea has undeniably conquered everything from smartphones, to music, to Korean drama (which my mom watches in the living room) to League of Legends to bulgogi. That said, I am not a particularly huge fan of Korea Inc. I still have an iPhone. I prefer ramen to bibimbap. Still, it’s telling how strong the Korean Wave (Hallyu) is when it inundates my life without my permission.

1) The economies of North Korea and South Korea were about the same size in the 1970s.

A strong theme that came through in this book, written by someone born in America but forced to move back to Korea in her school years, is that Korea was a dirt poor country not long ago. It’s not that surprising, but it goes to show how much a border can do.

2) Irony is the privilege of wealthy nations.

True. You need to have a firm standing before you can make fun of yourself.

3) Corporal punishment at schools was only made illegal in 2011.

I take her section on education with a grain of salt, but her comment that the number of times a student gets hit is his/her class rank is quite resounding. The government also only recently made private tutoring (hakwon) legal, fearing that rich kids would benefit more. Education is still a huge deal. In 2013, College Board canceled the SATs for the entire country because of cheating.

4) Kimchi used to not use red peppers, but salt got too expensive.

I also take this with a grain of salt. Hong also says that SARS helped the popularity of kimchi, as it has built a reputation for being healthy and good for your immune system. Korean food in general is becoming more popular, especially in the US, with David Chang at Momofuku, Hooni Kim at Danji, and Bobby Kwak inventing the bibimbap burger.

5) Han is a type of hatred towards fate exclusive to Koreans.

Hong portrays Han as a national mindset. She cites it as the reason that the country is able to work together. Koreans are all in it together – government, private companies, individuals. Koreans also take han out on the Japanese. South Korea even worked with North Korea to fight Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks. The two rivals were also cohosts for the 2002 World Cup. This led to debates over naming, with some anecdotes of Korea changing their spelling to Corea so it came before J.

6) 1997 was a turning point.

In 1997, Korea got a loan from the IMF and determined that they would do everything possible to never have to resort to it again.

7) The government is a huge part of Kpop.

In 2009, the government used $91 million to save Kpop and implemented stricter controls over karaoke royalties. There is also a private investment fund for pop culture, meaning that both public and private stakeholders have huge bets on the success of Korea culture.Tracing the history of music in Korea, Hong says that modern Korean music started as entertainment for American soldiers, with the Kim Sisters being the first to perform on US national TV.

8) The government is a huge part of Kdrama and Kfilm. 

Winter Sonata was the first drama that sparked the boom. The government knows what it’s doing, targeting 3rd world countries who will look to Korea when they develop. One huge part of the success of Kdrama is the government-funded effort of putting subtitles in. This allows people in the Middle East, South America, and Southeast Asia to watch. As for movies, the government also has minimum quotas for Korean films vs foreign films. However, movies like Oldboy have been so successful that the quota is only symbolic.

9) Conquering Japan is one of the most important strategies.

The two are rivals. In particular, Korea targeted the music market and Sony. Japan has the largest music market in the world – even bigger than the U.S. – since people still buy nicely-packaged CDs. Many Korean groups focus on the Japanese market and succeed, like TVXQ. Most of the top artists also release Japanese versions of their songs. As for beating Sony, Samsung used to have terrible quality, but also turned itself around and actually had a bigger market cap as far back as 2002.

10) Why did Korea succeed?

In Asia, one important psychological factor is that Korea has never done any wrong to its neighbors. They didn’t invade like Japan and don’t exert their power like China. Instead, it’s building extremely effective soft power through its cultural exports.

Hallyu is the full package. Like I said at the beginning, Korea can easily be part of all aspects of your life. Electronics. Food. Entertainment. It’s about subscribing to the Korean brand. Just like Apple, Korea has built an ecosystem.

Korea benefitted from luck and timing. They bet on digital when the world decided to abandon analog. The internet was coming together, which allowed Korean culture to spread.

Most of all, the government has been consciously making good decisions. They know the future. They knew their internet had to be good, so Korea has the fastest speeds in the world. They are not afraid to poke their nose into industries. Kpop, TV, movies, and Samsung all got huge boosts from the government.

The Birth of Korean Cool is a quick, light read. The book is almost all positive, which is to be expected from the title. I didn’t really like Korea when I went this summer, but now I kind of want to go again.

 

 

Kite Runner

Kite Runner

Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Somehow, I never read Kite Runner in high school. A friend just read it and recommended it, so I gave it a try. The story revolves around Amir and his decision to be a bystander as his friend/servant/half brother Hassan is raped. It is set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, giving readers a glimpse into the mindset of what life was like under the Taliban. Overall, it is a very sad book that focuses on the loss of innocence. The first few chapters about Amir’s and Hassan’s childhood were really good and make everything that happened afterwards that much more unfortunate. The ending is also great as the story comes full circle.

1) ‘That’s the one thing Shi’a people do well.’

The more I learn about conflicts in the Middle East, the more it seems like this Sunni-Shia divide is the most fundamental problem. More so than Israel or America. The book talks about how the Pashtuns repressed the Hazaras. No more relevant is this divide than in Iraq, which is majority Shiites but was ruled by Sunni Saddam Hussein.

2) ‘There is no act more wretched than stealing.’ – Baba

Whether it be a life or a loaf of naan.

3) ‘Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.’ – Rahim Khan

I would say no one is a coloring book.

4) Then Hassan did pick up a pomegranate. He walked toward me. He opened it and crushed it against his own forehead.

The most powerful element of the story was the unwavering loyalty of Hassan. He never betrayed and never faulted Amir. This only added to Amir’s burden, one that he never put down.

5) ‘Please’ – Baba

Baba was the most interesting character. An intimidating, powerful man who gave to charity and who begged his servant not to leave.

6) I wanted to tell them that, in Kabul, we snapped a tree branch and used it as a credit card.

7) ‘When the Taliban rolled in and kicked the Alliance out of Kabul, I actually danced on that street’ – Rahim Khan

Russians. Northern Alliance. Taliban. Afghanistan has not had it easy.

8) ‘You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.’ – Farid

This reminds me of the saying that if you have more than $30, you’re a tourist not a traveller. I don’t agree with this.

9) ‘And they call themselves Muslims.’ – Farid

This was a response to a justification of stoning because God says sinners should be punished. Too often, people use religion as a scapegoat. Maybe this applies to the Sunni/Shia divide too.

10) ‘Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life. Silence is pushing the off button.’

Good analogy.

Age of Ambition

Age of Ambition

Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

Another recommendation from Marginal Revolution. I tried to find a book on Taiwan but failed, so I decided to read about China instead. The dangers of reading books on China are that things change quickly and it is difficult to tell what is real and what is fake. Osnos, who writes for the New Yorker, delivers a revealing account of modern Chinese society. My key takeaway is a set of characters whose actions and experiences paint a daunting image of the state.

1. Justin Lin defected to China by swimming from Taiwan.

His story jumpstarts the book, and I knew right away that my knowledge of modern China must be lacking if I didn’t know who Justin Lin was. I was even more surprised when I learned he was recently a chief economist at the World Bank. I worked there two years ago. How did I not know? It is fitting that he is an economist. He saw that China had much more upside and gave up his homeland. His main economic argument is that the state should play a large role in development, and he considers China to be a successful example.

2. Mao Zedong oversaw the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), neither of which was economically sound.

The Great Leap Forward was a fail and is one of the deadliest events of modern history. Mao subsequently started the Cultural Revolution to reinforce the ideals of communism and to maintain his status within the party and the country.

3. Deng Xiaoping played a huge role in pushing the economy forward.

Although his name comes up much less often in the West, Deng was responsible for driving economic growth in China starting in the 1980s, when he set up special economic zones and loosened migration of rural workers to cities. Osnos repeatedly cites his Deng’s two famous lines: “Development is the only hard truth” and “Crossing the river by feeling the stones.” These lines summarized Deng’s philosophy. Economic growth must be relentless but also done carefully. Ultimately, Deng believed that China should let some people get rich first.

4. One of those rich people was Cheung Yan.

Nicknamed Queen of Trash, she ran Nine Dragons Paper. Her business collected paper in the U.S. and recycled it to make cardboards in China.

5. Hu Shuli ran Caijing, a publication that often ran up against the state.

She was not afraid to uncover scandals that might have looked bad on officials. In a hostile environment for press freedom, she pushed the boundaries.

6. Chinese people approve of their country.

Osnos says that 90% of them do, a far cry from the sub-50% seen in much of the developed world. To me, this book focuses on the dissenters but delivers the overarching message that they are very much the minority. The majority of Chinese people are content or happy about their lives. Who needs democracy when you can live a good life? Can China show that democracy is not a prerequisite for success?

7. Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

He received the award in prison, for protesting against the Tiananmen incident in 1989 and starting Charter 08, amongst other calls for human rights.

8. Han Han is a blogger and racer who rose to prominence with the book Triple Door.

The book lashed out against the educational system. Osnos describes Han Han as a different type of dissenter, one who brought up issues and was popular with the young generation. He was accused of ghostwriting and now seems to mostly focus on racing cars.

9. Ai Wei Wei is a controversial artist who demanded details on the Sichuan Earthquake.

The government has not been forthright about the identities of those who died in the earthquake, and there is speculation that the schools were not built properly and thus could not withstand the shake. Ai is repeatedly put under house arrest but is a world renowned artist. He once designed an exhibit in Munich using giant backpacks to bring attention to the kids in Sichuan. Another exhibit, this one in Copenhagen, is a surveillance camera, symboling the scrutiny that he is constantly under.

10. 50 cent party

Apparently some people were paid 50 cents for each comment on an online forum that opposed any accusations against the state. As a result, pro-government comments were soon immediately labeled as the work of 50 centers.

There was a lot more in this book that didn’t make the list. For example, a third of the book is devoted to faith with a focus on how Confucianism has shaped or been shaped by modern Chinese society. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Parts of it were scary, in that China seemed to have its way with anyone who dared to oppose it. The book winds down with discussions about Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream speech. Many may marvel at how quickly China has leaped to the top of the world, but the fact is that China had been the largest economy not too long ago. It can be argued that it just missed the wave of colonization and the Industrial Revolution and fell behind. Now, China is catching up and surpassing many. The problem is that, like Osnos says, China is a fast train with a limited number of seats.

 

My Promised Land

My Promised Land

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

This book was required reading for my Israel class in the spring. Of course, I didn’t read it. I tried and got through a chapter. It was actually very interesting and easy to read, but it was senior spring and I just wanted to hang out with people all day long. When I came back from Israel abruptly, I figured that I would finish the book and see what it had to say. It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read and was a huge reason why I started Booklog.

1. The story that early Zionists simply didn’t see the Palestinians

This imagery goes along with the “land with no people for a people with no land” claim. But I can’t see this story being anything more than a necessary excuse. How do you go to a new land and not see the people living there? And after you settle and realize there are in fact people there, you keep pretending. The whole conflict is very complicated, but the claim that Zionists didn’t see the Palestinians, literally or figuratively, should not be a talking point.

2. Jaffa oranges

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try these in Israel.

3. Establishment of housing estates showed that early Zionists were practical and did not have time to deal with issues.

Like many other economies that took off, the early generations suffered. They had no time to address problems that were not directly associated with economic growth. The most severe of these problems was the general disregard for the Arab issue. Early Zionists likely knew that coexistence would have eventually become a problem, but there was no time to think about it.

4. Dimona and the Israeli nuclear project

I didn’t learn that much about the Israeli nuclear program in class, although we supposedly spent one session on it… The chapter was really fascinating, and I learned that Israel has never explicitly admitted it has nuclear weapons. The interview style of the book really shines here, as Shavit sits down with those who were responsible for building the site.

5. The settlement movement took off after 1973.

There were most definitely some settlements before then, but Shavit claims that the big wave came after the war. This surprised me at first because settlements are such a central issue now.

6. For Israelis, The Six Day War (1967) was the high and the Yom Kippur War (1973) was the low.

In the former, Israel attacked preemptively and captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, West Bank, and Golan Heights. Israel was clearly the victor and established itself as the regional power. In the latter, an Arab coalition launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day for Jews. Even though the Israelis regained control, the war brought them back to earth. It dawned on Israelis that they would not just have their way in the Middle East. This realization, according to Shavit, marked a turning point for the state.

7. Aryeh Deri – leader of the Shas

I had never heard of him before, but he is one of the most influential Israelis ever. He stood for the minorities – Mizrahi and Orthodox. I learned a lot about the cleavages in Israeli society in class. Given the focus on Israeli-Palestinian tension, it is easy to forget that Israeli Jews are not a homogenous group. Some come from the West, some from the East. Some are ultra traditional, while most are secular. There are Muslims in Israel. There are Jews in the Arab world. Self identity is an issue and can drive the direction of the conflict.

8. Allenby 58 was one of the top clubs in the world back in the day.

According to Google Maps, this was a 7 minute walk from my apartment.

9. Ending occupation will not bring peace.

Shavit fills the last few chapters with somber thoughts. Even if Israel were to get out of its occupied territories now, the conflict would still be there. What about the Palestinians of 1948, he asks. These are the refugees of today. Where can they go? Their homeland is now Israel proper.

10. Interviews-based books are great.

There is nothing better than primary sources. Trying to understand a country requires understanding its people.

As I wrote this, I realized that I’ve forgotten many details about Israel (wars, years). Still, I didn’t even know what Zionism was until this spring. The Israel class was one of my favorite classes in college, and I am glad I had the chance to go there. Every country has its own problems, but I do find Israel’s problems very intriguing. Reading this book gave me further appreciation for the complexity of the conflict. But it also made me ask yet again why people fight. Perhaps I’ve been too lucky in life to have lived in places far from danger. But I do hope that, one day, I can go to Israel and pass through airport security in less than an hour.

Showa Japan

Showa Japan

Showa Japan by Hans Brinckmann

I’ve decided to read a book about every country that I travel to. I stumbled upon this idea when I finished My Promised Land by Ari Shavit after coming back from Israel. I was supposed to read it last semester, but didn’t get around to it. Reading the book after being there firsthand was a totally different experience. It helped me shape my thoughts about Israel and also taught me much more I had not known about. Likewise, I was fascinated by Japan and by how little I knew of its history, so I picked up this book to help fill in the gaps. From now on, I will read a book for every country. It’s not exactly easy, and I had to search for quite a while to find quality books. The best ones are by local journalists who have the ability to interview locals from different aspects of life. To my surprise, these books are hard to come by. In the case for Japan, I settled for a book by Dutch banker who spent long periods of his life in Japan. While I value his opinions, I did read this book with a grain of salt. Ultimately, locals are the best observers of their countries, especially for a country like Japan, which has a reputation for treating foreigners as a class of their own.

1. Blue collar workers in Japan are very much respected.

Brinckmann cites that peasants and farmers ranked above merchants in feudal Japan. This point is certainly interesting, and it may help explain the flawless appearance of Japanese public facilities – only possible through the hardwork of the cleaning crew.

2. Mitsubishi bought the Rockerfeller Group, who owned Rockerfeller Center.

It makes me wonder if big Chinese firms would soon be buying up American landmarks as well.

3. Emperor Hirohito ruled until 1989.

He oversaw almost the entire 20th century, in which Japan grew to be a world power, lost it, and gained it back. I’m interested in learning more about his role in WWII and how he managed to stay emperor in the aftermath.

4. Loose lending was a major cause of the Japanese bubble.

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the Japanese bubble and burst. I still have to dive deeper into the details, but it seems like the classic case of loose lending and rampant spending and investment. I’m surprised how little coverage this bubble receives nowadays. Japan is effectively still reeling from this bubble that burst over 20 years ago. It is reasonable to think that other countries will suffer a similar fate.

5. During the Showa period, companies existed for more market share and employment than for shareholders.

I’m not sure how true this is. But there is definitely a move away from the concept that one’s company is there to provide lifetime employment and protection. This increase in labor mobility is one example of policy reform that is supposedly to rejuvenate the economy. The results are debatable, since this mobility has translated into many less-than-ideal temporary jobs.

6. Subway terrorist attack by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995

I don’t know how I had never heard of this sarin attack that killed 13 people. This is a huge black spot in an otherwise peaceful and orderly society.

7. Japan suffers from infantilism.

This is one of Brinckmann’s sharpest claims. He thinks that the Japanese people are “babied” by society. There is an overemphasis on cute things. Cartoon characters are used to promote anything and everything. No one ever has to take responsibility for his/her actions. In short, the system works too well. This has led to complacency and is hurting Japan.

8. Rise of political right

The latest approach to its sagging economy seems to be a reemphasis on nationalism. Abe is strongly right, and there are no signs that Japan will appease China. Why should they? In my opinion, I think the rise of China has to do a lot with the decline of Japan. The Asia Pacific region cannot accommodate two true superpowers. Still, not everyone is happy about China’s aggressive stance in the region, and many countries may flock to Japan for protection. We will see what happens.

9. Wooden chopsticks – Waribashi

Brinckmann uses the waribashi as a symbol of Japanese society. The chopsticks are fixed together, mirroring the group mentality of the Japanese people. They are thrown out after one use, representing the emphasis on cleanliness.

10. Japan is easy to love.

I agree. Out of all the places I’ve been, Japan has impressed me the most. How does everything look so nice and work so well? Still, I am a tourist and only saw the outer surface which Japan has perfected. It obviously has problems, and it’s amazing how little of the trouble is visible. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Japan got it right after WWII. Because it was so good, it could afford to run in place. But now, that doesn’t work anymore. If you’re not running forward, you’re falling behind.

 

Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

This novel was the 4th Japan-related book I’ve read this summer (along with two nonfiction books and another of Haruki Murakami’s books – Norwegian Wood). I think this is the first time I’ve ever read multiple non-series works by the same author except for Shakespeare. While Kafka on the Shore is much more in the supernatural realm, it shares a surprising number of themes with the more realistic Norwegian Wood.

1. ‘In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female.’

Oshima claims that after God cut people in half, people spent their lives looking for their other halves. At first, this was just an interesting conversation between Kafka and Oshima. But later, Oshima turns out to be a girl who takes on the male gender. It reminds me of Norwegian wood when Reiko suddenly shakes up the book by recounting her unexpected lesbian encounter with her piano student.

2. ‘Um,’ the cat said.

Nakata enters the story speaking to a cat. The scene flips a switch and turns the book into pure whack. Nakata’s conversations with the cats are also my favorite parts.

3. In dreams come responsibilities.

This refers to whether Eichmann deserved to be punished when he simply followed orders. Once again, the statement seems random until later when Kafka sleeps with Miss Seiki and Sakura in his dreams (supposedly his mother and sister).

4. ‘What’s the name of the song?’ ‘Kafka on the Shore’

I had been speculating about the book’s title until this point. Just like Norwegian Wood, which is named after the Beatles song, this book lends its title to a song. Music plays a huge role throughout. For example, Hoshino discovers Archduke Trio and draws parallels between Nakata and Beethoven.

5. ‘My grandpa always said asking a question is embarrassing for a moment, but not asking is embarrassing for a lifetime’ – Hoshino

Yes. Always ask questions.

6. ‘So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts.’ – Oshima

Best analogy in the book. The complexity is inside you.

7. ‘The only thing I understand is the present.’ – Nakata

This is why Nakata is the best character. He is refreshing because he goes about his business with no worries about the past or future. Miss Seiki is the perfect foil. She is trapped in her past and essentially dies at a young age when her boyfriend dies.

8. ‘Hey there, kitty. Nice day, isn’t it?’ – Hoshino

The life of this overworked, soul-searching truck driver changes dramatically when he decides to go on an adventure with the cryptic Nakata. In the end, after Nakata’s death, he gains the ability to talk to cats. Definitely the character who ends on the highest note.

9. ‘Memory isn’t so important here. The library handles memories.’  – Girl in the forest

That’s why so much of the book takes place inside a library – a symbol of the past.

10. ‘I want you to remember me.’ – Miss Seiko

Exact same line as Norwegian Wood from Naoko to Watanabe. A simple line that summarizes the struggles of both relationships.

Kafka on the Shore is one of the most confusing books I’ve ever read. Talking cats. Johnnie Walker. KFC. Stones. Leeches. Dreams. Crows. When I finished, I thought I hadn’t read carefully enough because there were so many holes in the story. Some things weren’t explained. Others didn’t make sense. But apparently, this is what Murakami wanted.

The first half of the book is riveting, but the story slows down in the second half and ventures into thoughts and philosophies. I enjoyed the alternating chapters of Kafka and Nakata, although I found the Nakata plotline to be much more exciting. I’ll let this book sink in for a bit, then I’ll definitely check out more of Murakami’s books.