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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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?

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

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 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.

 

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?

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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 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.

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?

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.

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.

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 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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.