The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 by Richard J. Evans

The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans is part of the acclaimed Penguin History of Europe series, covering the time between the fall of Napoleon and the outbreak of World War I. It provides an in-depth exploration of the social, technological, and political developments that shaped Europe during this era.

The book covers a wide range of topics, including the Industrial Revolution, the rise of nationalism, the growth of democracy, and the tensions that eventually led to World War I. It provides insights into the impact and timeline of these developments across different regions, which gives readers a holistic view of the interconnectedness of European countries.

The level of detail provided by Richard J. Evans is impressive. It includes a list of maps for topics such as the abolition of serfdom and railway building to help illustrate the different pace each region progresses. It shows how ideas spread and how decisions about adopting certain reforms can be critical to a country’s progress.

Summarizing 100 years of European history is no easy task, but Richard J. Evans has done a great job of explaining the complex forces that shaped Europe in the 19th century. One thing I would have done differently is to take notes when reading books with this amount of information provided. I find it hard to recollect some takeaways I had looking back now. Nonetheless, it’s a great book for readers looking to learn more about European history.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Let me now posit this: ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.

The Remains of the day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a novel that tells the first-person account of Stevens, a head butler at Darlington Hall. My wife recommended this book to me since she was impressed with the rave reviews of Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. Although we typically read different genres, the book’s focus on the role of a butler caught my attention, particularly given my interest in the character of Alfred in The Dark Knight trilogy.

Stevens’ employer, Mr. Farraday, suggests he take some time off while he’s away. Despite his initial reluctance, Stevens decides to take a road trip to visit a former colleague, Miss Kenton, for whom he has fond feelings, but never confessed due to his interpretation of dignity. The story centers around Stevens’ pursuit of what dignity means and the qualities of a great butler. Through reflecting on his past experiences, Stevens demonstrates how he exhibits dignity and possesses the qualities of a great butler. However as the story nears the end, Stevens begins to doubt his interpretation of dignity, as he realizes that even though he has completely given himself to his profession and serving his employer, it came at the expense of hiding his own feelings and personal opinions.

“I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?”

The Remains of the day by Kazuo Ishiguro

While I enjoyed the book’s focus on these topics, I found that not all of Stevens’ past experiences contributed meaningfully to his character development. At times, similar points were conveyed and reinforced by different experiences. However, I appreciated the book’s insights into the demanding nature of the butler profession and exploring what it means to have dignity.

Overall, The Remains of the Day offers a unique perspective on the role of a butler. While it may not appeal to all readers, its exploration of Stevens’ character and the demanding nature of his profession make it a worthwhile read for those interested in the topic.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

With the new year I’ve been thinking about how to better document my learnings from the books I’ve read. Writing doesn’t come easy to me, so each book review I wrote usually took quite some time for me to complete. Instead of no longer writing book reviews, I’ve decided to try out writing shorter reviews instead. I’ll try to limit myself to no more than 300 words to focus more on my takeaways and less on describing the plot.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson shows how Winston Churchill led UK during the Second World War. It gives accounts of how Churchill and his extended family was impacted by the war.

With Germany’s superior military strength, UK alone wasn’t going to be able to withstand Germany’s attacks long term. Churchill at the very outset understood the importance of getting US to become UK’s ally in order to tilt the war in UK’s favor. He communicated often with Franklin Roosevelt, US president at the time, on the the importance of US support to not only UK but to US as well.

Churchill’s leadership was instrumental as he rallied the British people to be fearless and to never surrender. He was resolute in his vision and made tough decisions to maximize the strengths of his team. This led to UK drastically increasing its arms productions which allowed UK to fortify its defense until US involvement in the war.

I enjoyed the story telling nature of the book where historical facts are presented to produce a compelling story. One aspect which I lost interest in is when the story centered too much on the lives of Churchill’s extended family. I find it taking away from the main plot while also not adding much insights. All in all this is a book I do enjoy reading for the most part, although since it’s not as focused as I would like it to be it’s not on my recommended list.

When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowestein details how a firm so widely regarded in the financial industry can collapse in a span of few months.

Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) was founded in 1994 by John Meriwether. Prior to LTCM, John worked at an investment bank, Salomon Brothers, as a bond trader before becoming the vice-chairman of the company. With his experience at Salomon Brothers and his mathematics background, John brought in various academics including Myron Scholes and Paul Merton, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics. This emphasis on computer research and data analysis was uncommon at the time and gave LTCM a mystique around how they identified investment opportunities.

Coupling extensive computer research along with the theory that bond yield spreads eventually converge, LTCM traders were confident in their analysis and made unparalleled returns in their first few years by being highly leveraged. With all the momentum on its side and LTCM being greatly heralded in the financial industry, LTCM traders became more reckless in their trading. They leveraged more, invested with their private funds, and started to enter markets they were not familiar with.

Leverage allows you to invest money which you don’t have. However, on the down side, you can suffer great losses if your investment doesn’t pan out. With the financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, this impacted many markets and LTCM quickly found all its leveraged positions plummeting in value. From a net worth of 3.6 billion, LTCM lost all its value in a span of few months and entered bankruptcy as it watches Russia defaulted on its currency bonds.

The key takeaway I walked away is the importance of discipline when it comes to trading. During a bull run, people often times fell into a trap of having a sense of invincibility and will start to make uncharacteristic trades in an effort to yield higher returns. The most consistent thing is uncertainty and even though market research is important, the future is not a simple extension of past trends.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The president of the United States is one of the most powerful positions held in the world. With so much power to influence both domestic and global policies, it comes with great responsibility, pressure, and scrutiny. Being someone who doesn’t follow politics closely, I still question the reasoning behind certain policies. However with so many things that happen behind the scenes and the well-coined term of playing politics, I wonder what considerations are made when drafting a bill.

A Promised Land is the first part of a two-volume memoir on Barack Obama. It goes over how Obama got into politics, how he raised through the ranks to become POTUS, and what goes into the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.

My biggest takeaway is the amount of work and coordination that goes into passing a bill. Politicians belong to different parties and everyone has their self interests no matter if it’s supporting their own party interest or to poll well in their next local election. This means that oftentimes the best crafted out bills have to be watered down from giving out concessions to convince senators, especially from opposing parties, to support the bill. It speaks not only to the US political system, as it’s just a microcosm of society, where people can prioritize their self-interest over public interest.

The filibuster is a powerful legislative device in the United States Senate. Senate rules permit a senator or senators to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless “three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn” bring debate to a close by invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII.

I couldn’t believe it when I read about filibuster. A method where you never end your side of the debate to delay or entirely prevent a decision from being made. Talking endlessly in order to prevent an unfavourable outcome sounds immature especially in politics when the stakes are so high. Obama went in depth on how his team needed to give out concessions to senators in order to gain their support. This shows the difficulty in crafting a bill and that securing votes is just as important especially when filibuster is taken into account.

Obama talked extensively about the sacrifice his family had to make to support his political career. In a marriage, responsibilities are often divided where one person works and the other takes care of the family. It’s important to know that both roles are vital to a family and that staying at home shouldn’t be valued any less than the role of providing for the family. In fact, the person staying at home is usually the one making the bigger sacrifice and should be valued and appreciated. When your partner or parent is the president of the United States, you instantly lost the normalcy you are accustomed to, you have to relocate and travel to support political campaigns, and you might need to give up your career goals.

I throughly enjoyed A Promised Land by Barack Obama. Books like this which gives me a unique perspective and experience always rank high on my list. Obama provides a lot of details which can at times appear dragged out but it also helps paint a clearer picture of the lifestyle of the first family of the United States. I’m looking forward to the second volume of the memoir and will also be picking up Becoming by Michelle Obama.

1984 by George Orwell

Whenever a conversation at work mentioned 1984, it seemed like a novel was always brought up and an understanding was shared among the people who got the reference. Although I tend not to read fiction, there came a time when I decided to add it to my reading list despite knowing as much about the book as its title can possibly suggest.

1984 by George Orwell takes place in a dystopian setting where the Party, a totalitarian government led by the Big Brother, closely monitors everyone’s actions and demands complete loyalty.

There is the Ministry of Truth, which rather than upholding the truth, dictates what the truth is. This is achieved by the constant rewriting and falsifying of past records to serve the Party. The ministry also created a new language, Newspeak, to limit the thoughts that can possibly be expressed. One of the words introduced is doublethink, which is the practice of believing in contradicting statements while forgetting that the contradiction exists. The truth is constantly changing and any level of questioning can quickly caused your entire existence to be erased.

The Party eliminates any rebellious thoughts through the Ministry of Love. It instills love to the Big Brother through mass surveillance, fear, and torture. The Thought Police are the secret police who discovers and punishes thoughts unapproved by the Party. People who show any level of opposition through their actions, words, facial expressions, or even what was said in their dreams are brought to the Ministry of Love where they’ll learn to love the Big Brother.

Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, is not contempt with the current way of living. Although Winston is adept at conforming outwardly to appear loyal to the Party, his rebellious desire grows with each passing day.

Julia, who also works for the Ministry of Truth, confessed her love to Winston in secrecy one day. They quickly became lovers and would spend time together out of the view of surveillance. Winston and Julia agreed that when they get caught, there’s one thing the Party can’t take away from them, which is their love towards each other.

There are stories about a secret organization called the Brotherhood whose focus is to take down the Party. O’Brien, an inner member of the Party, was believed by Winston to be working for the Brotherhood. Winston’s suspicious appears to be validated when O’Brien asked Winston and Julia the sacrifice they are willing to make to overthrow the Party.

Winston and Julia continued to meet up in their hiding place until one day when they got caught by the Thought Police. To Winston’s surprise, the person who disciplines him is O’Brien. O’Brien then carried out physical and mental tortures on Winston. The goal is not to extract information, which Winston had already given all up, but to completely remove any thoughts against the Party. Even though Winston was able to stick with his beliefs during the initial torturing, he finally betrayed his love for Julia when he was brought to Room 101, the dreaded room where you are faced with your deepest fears. Winston was then released before his eventual execution.

Winston and Julia encountered each other one day. They both confessed that they had betrayed each other, which when you do, you don’t feel the same way about the other person. They no longer have feelings for each other and went their separate ways. As Winston was about to get executed, Winston thought to himself that he had finally won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

It’s hard to put into words the feeling of reading 1984. I was expecting Winston to find his way to the Brotherhood and to overthrow the Big Brother. However, there came a time when I realized that there is no way out. It makes you ponder what can happen if a group of intelligent people with a pure pursuit of power has the technology and resource to perform mass surveillance on the public.

I’m still amazed at George Orwell’s ability to provide such in depth details on how a dystopian world with a totalitarian government will look like. Contrary to the usual endings where the protagonist will achieve certain level of victory, an ending of complete defeat of the protagonist’s character is not only thrilling for the readers but also fitting for the dystopian setting.

The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason

The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason uses a collection of parables to give financial advice. The parables are revolved around a character named Arkad, a poor scribe who became the richest man in Babylon. Even though the book was written nearly a century ago, the principles still hold true today.

A part of all you earn is yours to keep

Some of us are fortunate to be in situations where we can keep a significant portion of what we earn. However, with rent, tuition, family obligations, and leisure, a majority of us might find ourselves in situations where our years of hard work do not result in much savings.

George advocates that everyone should put away at least one-tenth of their earnings to create an estate for their future. Rather than save your remaining earnings after you’ve paid out your expenses, first put away at least one-tenth of your earnings then plan out your expenses. Odds are you will be able to identify and cut down unnecessary spendings.

Even though saving for you and your family’s future is important, George also stresses the importance of enjoying your life in the present. Do not try to save more than what you can comfortably keep. Life is short and full of things to enjoy. Save at least one-tenth of your earnings and save more if you and your family can still live comfortably.

Learn to make your earnings work for you

If what you save can earn for you, then its children can also earn for you, which will enable you to multiply your wealth in the long run. Seek advice from those wise in managing money and handle your wealth accordingly.

For all the financial advices given, this is probably the hardest to accomplish. Finding a safe and profitable way to invest your money is easier said than done. You can place your earnings in your savings account which with inflation doesn’t increase your wealth by much. You can invest in stocks. However, different investment analysts recommend different stocks. You can place your earnings in index funds which can be a good option but it doesn’t yield high returns.

Learning to make your earnings work for you is important. However, I’ll say it’s more valuable to listen to what George advices not to do. Do not invest based on the advice of people who are not experts in the field they sell. Do not trust your own inexperience or desires in investment if it’s not based on sound reasoning and analysis. Do not chase after impossible earnings.

Don’t feel obliged to lend your money to any person

When you become wealthy, naturally a lot of your friends or relatives will seek your help financially. It’s human nature to feel a sense of obligation to help those who are close to you.

Even if you are in a position to lend your money, always take a step back and evaluate. Does the person who you are trusting your money with have a track record of handling money successfully? Are there valid reasons for you to be confident in the person’s ability to pay you back? And is lending your money the best way you can help this person? If the answer to any of the questions is no, find other ways to help. When a relationship involves a large sum of money, it can destroy relationships including with friends and family. Think carefully before you trust someone with your money.

Summary

The Richest Man in Babylon contains many valuable financial advices. Despite being a quick read with only 100+ pages, it can feel dragged out with many parables emphasizing the same set of financial principles. It’s a book I would recommend since it can have a positive impact on how you handle your wealth. If you are into the investment side of things and enjoy a deep dive on it, I would recommend The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Whenever I go shopping, Nike is the one store that I always visit. I love Nike’s simplistic logo along with its casual and sporty look. However, when it comes to Nike’s history, all I do know is it’s the largest supplier of athletic shoes and apparel and it sponsors many of the NBA players I follow.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight is a memoir on how Phil founded Nike and grew it to the empire we know today. As one of the most successful entrepreneurs, Phil didn’t emphasize his contributions. On the contrary, he simply tells the story of Nike and might even give you the impression that he was just lucky to be surrounded by geniuses who propelled him. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Luck plays a big role. Yes, I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome. Some people might not call it luck. They might call it Tao, or Logos, or Jñāna, or Dharma. Or Spirit. Or God. Put it this way. The harder you work, the better your Tao.

Phil Knight

Phil Knight was lucky. When Phil asked to be the US distributor for Onitsuka, a Japanese shoe company, they agreed to it based on Phil’s lie that he represented Blue Ribbons, a company he made up on the spot. His track and field coach at Oregon, Bill Bowerman, was a mad genius at experimenting with shoe designs who was also the Olympic track and field US head coach. His reputation and charisma alone garnered respect in the shoe industry and his constant pursuant of a more performant shoe was a competitive advantage which set Nike apart from its competitors. Phil didn’t approach Bowerman to be his partner. Bowerman was the one who asked to be in on the partnership after Phil sent Bowerman shoe samples from Onitsuka.

Phil’s first full time employee, Jeff Johnson, happened to be another mad genius who worked tirelessly and took care of sales, advertising, customer retention, store opening, you name it with minimum leadership and oversight from Phil. These are just a few examples of how lucky Phil was.

However, if you read closely, you will see the brilliance of Phil Knight. Phil was a kid who loved running whose final year entrepreneurship project claimed that Japanese running shoes can make deep cuts into the shoe market similar to how Japanese cameras did. Unlike the majority of us, his crazy idea didn’t end with the course. He did his research, understood the shoe market, and identified Onitsuka Tiger as the shoes he wanted to distribute. Then he flew to Japan alone.

Bill Bowerman saw Phil as someone he wanted to partner with and asked for Phil to have controlling stakes of the company. His number one full time employee, Jeff Johnson, had nonstop ideas on how to improve the business. Phil unlike many managers we see today, did not micromanage and instead allowed Jeff the autonomy to maximize his impact. Phil greatly appreciates and values those around him and you can clearly tell from how he described each of those he worked with.

For all the great qualities that Phil possess, one of the most important is his persistence to accomplish his dream. There were the times when Onitsuka did not deliver the initial Tiger shoe samples for more than a year, when Kitami, Onisuka’s export manager, went behind their agreed contract and planned to replace Nike with a different US distributor, and when Onitsuka was looking for a distributor who had a store on the east coast which Nike didn’t have. These were all valid excuses that nearly all of us would have used to give up. But Phil didn’t, he pushed forward, got a group of people to work together and resolved one challenge at a time.

Shoe Dog is by far my favorite memoir. Phil Knight is an excellent writer and was able to reflect on his past with such truthfulness. I learned a lot about the type of challenges that come along with starting a company. Shoe Dog is one of my top book recommendations and I hope you will enjoy it.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

My parents escaped Việt Nam on a boat so their children could grow up in freedom.

Our parent-child relationship is one that we seldom reflect upon. In the illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui examines her relationship with her parents and how their history of having to live through the Indochina wars have impacted who they are today.

Thi Bui is a novelist born in Vietnam, three months before the end of the Vietnam war. In an effort to become closer to her parents, Thi began to inquire about her family’s background and their journey of escaping to the United States as refugees in 1978.

The Best We Could Do started with Thi in labor and concluded with Thi and her son, however the plot is mainly revolved around Thi’s parents, Bố and Má (father and mother in Vietnamese). The lives they led before they met each other were very different. Má’s father was the chief of public works for the government so she grew up living in a big house in Cambodia with servants, cooks, and gardeners. Má was always the top student in class and won many awards. On the other hand, Bố’s family had to survive by whatever means they had during the Second World War. One night Bố watched his father beat his mother and threw her out. As a result, Bố was never able to develop a close relationship with his parents.

Afraid of my father, craving safety and comfort. I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.

There were trouble in Cambodia where Vietnamese people were being killed, which forced Má’s family back to Vietnam. Bố looking to avoid joining the army, applied and passed the exams to join a teacher’s college, where he met Má. Even though Má’s family was not fond of Bố, they still ended up married. During the Vietnam war, bombings happened regularly and they had to survive skyrocketing inflation with fixed teachers’ salaries. Friends, neighbours, and students were killed and people including children were incentivized and taught to spy on each other including their parents.

There is no single story of that day, April 30, 1975. In Việt Nam today, among the victors, it is called Liberation Day. Overseas, among expats like my parents, it is remembered as the day we lost our country.

After South Vietnam lost the Vietnam war, living conditions were still poor. People in the south were name called and distrusted. Families were constantly monitored and could at any moment be separated. With the changed currency and inflation once again, there was a daily survival for food. Bố and Má then decided to flee Vietnam and was able to escape via boat and reached Malaysia in 1978.

The Best We Could Do is the first illustrated novel I’ve ever read. It’s an easy read and the graphics helped visualize the living conditions during the wars. The plot is well told and I’m impressed at how truthful Thi was at examining her vulnerabilities and her relationship with her parents. I enjoyed reading this book and I’ve learned a lot about Vietnam and got a glimpse of life during the Vietnam war.

Nine Pints by Rose George

This year hasn’t gone well for me in terms of keeping up with my writing routine. I’ve been spending lots of time reading data-related topics and practicing coding challenges to improve my technical skills as a data engineer. This along with my job moving to work from home 6 months ago due to COVID has made it challenging to keep up with my habits.

As I type and reflect, this made me further understand the importance of setting achievable goals and adjusting your mindset when your day to day routine is affected. Due to me moving out and gyms being closed due to COIVD, my goals of practicing piano and working out became hard to achieve. As I started to not keep up with these habits, it also negatively impacted my discipline to accomplish the rest of my weekly goals.

I’ve reflected on my goals and redefined it so it’s achievable and relevant. I’ll start with a low baseline and turn on the intensity after I’m accustomed to the frequency of the habits I’ve set for myself. Besides this, I’m going to dive back into meditation as I felt like I was not as good at dealing with distractions compared to when I was meditating. Hopefully, if you are in a similar scenario, you can also reflect and redefine your goals to see if this can help you get back to your routine.

BLOOD-PINTS

The first book I’ve read while working from home is Nine Pints by Rose George. It’s a book about blood which drew my interest as it’s such a vital part of me which I know so little about. Rose covered topics which includes the usage of leeches, blood transfusions, HIV, and menstruation.

Rose George is an English journalist and writer best known for her non-fiction, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. Rose’s ability to dive deep into a topic and her persistence to understands really shines through as she traveled to India, Nepal, South Africa, and the Canadian prairies to conduct her research.

Rose started out with a visit to a leech farm in Wales. The connection between leeches and blood seems apparent, however, I was still amazed to learn that leeches were widely used as a medical instrument and at times treated like a cure-all prescription in the 1800s. And even though it’s not popular now, leeches are still being used medically due to its natural abilities to increase blood circulation and to break up blood clots.

Moving to Canada, Rose investigated the business side of blood as well as the ethical and safety aspect of selling blood and plasma. When corporations are allowed to profit off of blood, they can take advantage of people in need and target people in poor neighborhoods. By paying the donors, it will also entice people to lie about their medical status which will put unsafe blood in the pipeline to be transfused.

Rose then went into great depth to talk about menstruation. It’s very insightful to learn about all the troubles that come with menstruation. For developing countries, this can be a huge issue. When Rose was in Nepal, she discovered that there’s a tradition of women having to sleep in slacks during their period due to the belief of women bringing bad luck when menstruating. A lot of the women interviewed were firm believers of the tradition as it’s usually passed down from their family and so engrained in their culture. Rose further talked about how unaffordable sanitary pads are to women in some regions which force women to use whatever they can find instead which can often lead to infections and diseases due to poor hygiene. This further highlights the importance of further education on menstruation especially in developing countries.

Nine Pints is a very informative and insightful book on blood. It shines light on many aspects of blood that my review doesn’t cover. I’ll definitely recommend this book if you want to learn more about blood or want to read a different topic.

I started my blog as a way to document my learnings and improve my writing after I’ve read Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk, but I must say I really do enjoy writing again. 🙂