Book Review: “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson


Two characters in this wonderfully written book – The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson. The first character is Henry H. Holmes, a physician, a good liar but mostly a cold-blooded psychopath murderer. The other character is Daniel Burnham, a master architect that orchestrated the building of the many beautiful architectural wonders in the World Faire in Chicago in 1893. The connection between the two characters are not strong other than they happened to live in close proximity in the same neighborhood during the fair.

It’s a great book for people curious how the World’s Columbian Exposition – its beginning and the end and the people, the architects, the politicians who made it happen. Of course, you get to know about the two main characters in the book: H. H. Holms and Daniel Burnham. Very well researched and written. Always enjoyed Erik Larson’s book.

10 things you need to know about Henry Holmes:

1. He was charming, handsome with beautiful set of blue eyes and seductive to innocent young women. He could come up with many impressive lies like his name (loyalty connection), wealth (mostly borrowed), position (doctor) and his caring and benign demeanor.

2. A master of turning the attack around (Aikido): When confronted with his fraud or lies, he responds in gentle and good counter lies that seem to make the accusers apologetic.

3. Leaves little evidence (by the old standard). He’s adept at destroying the evidence. Having a custom gas chamber/vault and a crematorium in the basement allowed him to murder and get rid of bodies without incurring too much notice from others.

4. Uses little force. Hi modus operandi is mostly through trapping the person in a chamber and inject an nerve gas (chloroform) to kill.

5. Takes advantage of the environmental factors: a. Lots of visitors going into and out of the World Faire – police officers were too busy to handle missing people case. b. Living in a era where cadavers are difficult to acquire and bodies can be easily stolen, articulated, and acquired without too much scrutiny.

6. He has help: Pitizel, who and whose children he eventually murdered and got convicted of the crime. Ironic.

7. Got braver and braver when uncaught with murder one after another.

8. Never admitted to any crime but eventually equating himself to a devil as he saw himself physically evolving into one.

9. Henry H. Holmes was finally executed by hanging in 1896, after murdering confirmed 9, confessed 27 and up to 200 estimated, started as early as 1888.

10. He is a devil. Even he thought so himself: “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the ‘Evil One’ standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”
– H. H. Holmes[29][30]

On Burnham, here are the 5 things you need to know about him:
1. He organized and successfully completed the entire World Faire of 1893 just with 2 short years despite his poor health. The team had to overcome significant setbacks like the poor soil quality, political influences to bias the designs, and etc.

2. He knows how to hire the best people for the job. Frederic Olmsted for the landscaping, and John Root, his partner to architect the entire ground. When Root died in the middle of construction, he had to pick up the chief architect work.

3. Burnham was indicted when one of the buildings caught fire. Ironically, the attendance picked up after the fire which seemed to draw onlookers.

4. Despite the artistic success of the World Faire Buildings, the financials were not so good. Burnham had to face many inquiries and restrictions toward the end of the expo as the World Faire didn’t make enough money to pay for itself.

5. Burnham fostered the early thinking of an eco-responsible architecture. He was concerns with waste of building materials.

Book Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi


It’s the sad ending to a neurosurgeon doctor, Paul Kalanithi who found himself becoming a cancer patient, at the end of his 7-year residency. Writing out his journey through the detection and attacking the lung cancer with regiments of chemo and radiation therapies and going back to finishing up the residency and getting his physician license, but then fell ill again and finally succumbing to cancer in 2015. Through this time, he saw the birth of his baby girl. It’s an emotional roller coaster journey with a sad ending. It’s a good book for someone or family members who’s undergoing the same situation.

My key takeaways from this book:

– The hectic pace of the residency, especially for a neurosurgeon, may have contributed to his cancer. Unfortunately, being on top of his field, Paul was too competitive to let go and even went back to perform surgery after going through the therapy and during the remission of his cancer. I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to do that. Life style and career change may be required for someone like that. He paid a huge price for and a great loss of his potential patients.

– Paul is great in writing, having been torn between literature and medicines. It’s natural for him to pursue medicine as his dad and a few of his relatives are ones. Hard for me to imagine how one masters such combined skills in diametrically opposite fields.

– Going from a physician to a patient put him on both sides of tables. He saw both perspectives very clearly. For example, he was asked not to worry about the mortality curve by his oncologist, going against his physician judgement and yet it’s something he could appreciate as a patient when the odds are stacked against him.

– Growing up in a small Arizona because of his dad’s relocation, made him a good wildlife observer and paved his way to becoming a doctor, a darn good one given his attending one of the best medical schools – Stanford and the accolades he received at the end of his residency. He could’ve garnered more than $1M in annual salary! What a heart breaker!

– Paul’s writing stopped about a few months before he passed away. But his wife continued in writing about the last few days of his life.

– Paul’s writing was mesmerizing and touching. Unfortunately, we will not be able to see more of them. It did leave many of us with better understanding of the battle against cancer to be better prepared if one would to encounter one. My heart goes out to his wife, his baby girl, and his family.

This is a fine book for someone who’s on top of the world and near it. The view may be great and the way down may be treacherous. Stay true to your course but don’t forget to enjoy a bit, you never know what tomorrow brings.

His essays.

Book Review: “It’s a Long Story – My Life” by Willie Nelson


It’s always pleasant to read a genuine, down-to-earth, creative person’s life story. In this case, it’s Willie Nelson, the famous country, blue, jazz, (or other labels) singer and composer.

– Willie Nelson is one creative soul. How does he do it? At his age of 82, he has cranked up more than 68 albums.
– “To all the girls he loved before.” Willie did have lots of women in his life. There seemed to be a pattern for the famous singer.
– He used his creativity in tackling the IRS tax problem by facing the IRS head-on without declaring bankruptcy against his friends’ best advises. He sold albums to pay off his debts.
– Willie Nelson shows that you don’t have be branded as a country music singer or a pop star as long as you master something (music) that you’re passionate about and keep doing it, evolving it with creativity. A great lesson for all.
– His love for pot, marijuana, as the best “medicine” to take edges off with little downside under stress as cigarettes killed both of his parents and alcohol has too much side effect for. He even campaign for its legalization.
– Singing covers for some of the old songs went against the pundits’ advises and proved them wrong.
– Before his musical success, he had to sell encyclopedias which he didn’t feel good about despite his success as a salesman. He tried selling vacuum cleaners instead to ease his conscience.
– Willie moved around to try different markets like Texas, Tennessee, Colorado, Oregon and Los Angeles. He’s very gutsy and willing to try different things – this is the key to success. Keep moving and keep reinventing.
– Despite his success, Willie never forget his root; he had a home in Abbot, Texas, where he was born and raised.
– I got to familiarize some of his songs – some are popular and some are not.
– He mentioned a lot about his friends like Waylon Jenning, Jimmy Carter, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and a few others.
– Like a good country music. Willie Nelson tells a good, long story of his life in this book. It’s a good read for those who admire his work, music and his good character.

Book Review: “Working Stiff” by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

Dr. Judy Melinek described her experience as a medical examiner performing autopsy on nearly 300 bodies in New York. She shared some personal experience as a daughter to a psychiatrist father, who committed suicide when she was only 13 years old. You can learn from her a few ways how a person dies and what happens afterward. Of course, you get to learn the forensic science on how to determine how a person dies and how to attribute to the root cause. As a person who’s always curious about deaths (one of my favorite HBO TV series is “Six Feet Under”), it’s a very fascinating read if you’re interested in that sort of things.
– The main reason Dr. Melinek decided to switch from being a surgeon to a forensic pathologist or medical examiner was to leave the 130-hr work week, which may result in hurting her patients. She couldn’t do it any more.
– “Decomps” or decomposition of human bodies when a person dies – the blow up of skin due to bacteria, the maggots, and etc., challenges a medical examiner in finding the cause of death.
– Dr. Melinek examined many suicide cases. Having experienced her father’s suicide, it gets very personal for her but she was willing to talk about it and confronting it, which is in a way therapeutic for her. I agreed that the committing suicide is a coward act but I sympathize without those suffering through depression and the family members who had to see the self destruction of their loved one.
– She distinguished the differences among the causes of death: “undetermined,” “homicide,” “accident,” “therapeutic altercation” and “natural cause.” The responsibility lies with the examiner in determining the cause correctly.
– A medical examiner doesn’t get to follow through the cases that came to their tables. When ruled as “homicide,” a detective must investigate. The frustrating one is one that she couldn’t find the cause – “undetermined.”
– Strange cases like headless man washed out on a river bank who turned out be a handicap with a serious gambling habit. Nonhuman parts like animal penis showed up for ID. There was a body without much blood – retracted back to the bone?! A bullet got flushed into the circulatory system and ended up far away from the entry point. An alcoholic woman fell off the stair and died – killed by her estranged husband? A hot-watered burned baby? A strange TRALI case, anti-body reaction to blood transfusion, was mistaken to be a drug junkie case.

– Working through the disaster of the World Trade Center collapses during September 11, 2001, Melinek had the first-hand knowledge of that human tragedy and the experience working through identifying the body parts for the living who remains. The gruesome scenes that she describes make a deep impression on me – the charred, decomposed body parts that they had to identify for almost 1,400 people out of the nearly 3,000 casualties. What a sad, sad tragedy! In addition, they had to contend with the threat of anthrax, the subsequent crash of AA 587 in Queens, NY within 2 months of the 911 and other rumors that made their work more difficult.
– I like this last quote of hers, “To confront death every day (she did more than 2,000 since), to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.” How true!

Book Review: “Who I Am” by Pete Townshend

I’m not much of a fan of “The Who” rock band until I read this book. It’s a book about Pete Townshend’s journey from a child of non-traditional upbringing to becoming a famous rock star.

– Interesting creative process of writing songs: locking himself up in non-stop marathon creative session. Rock opera like “Tommy” was a stroke of genius though I still couldn’t put rock and opera in the same sentence or think of them in similar veins. His dedication to the craft of playing and create music is certainly admirable.

– Being born with talents to a musical-talented parents (father was a musician and mother was a good band singer) equipped him with some advantages, though it comes with some downsides of unstable family environment (mother’s on-and-off relationship with his father).

– The Who has many good hits including the theme songs used in CSI, New York. It’s a walk down the memory lanes when I replayed some of their songs and videos on Youtube.

– Pete’s relationship with Eric Clapton and helping Eric’s struggle with his and his wife’s drug addiction. He probably save them from their own self destruction, by Pete’s account.

– Like the Rolling Stones band, the Who band was also involved in lots of drugs, and alcohol. For Pete, he used alcohol more than any other drugs, according to the book. He drank and drove often and got his driver’s license revoked, fortunately, so no one else got hurt.

– Smashing guitar became his signature act because of his performances in his earlier career. Also Pete turned the feedback and level saturation into an art form.

– Lacking spiritual direction, Pete Townshend became fascinated with the teaching of Baba Meher, who claimed to be an Avatar of God. Must be the side effect of too much drug or alcohol abuses.

Overall, it’s a good book if you are a “The Who” fan. Since I’m not, it didn’t do much for me but it did bring back lots of memory when I checked back all the The Who hits like “Who Are You,” “Baba O’riley,” and other good songs on youtube. The book reminded me of Keith Richards’ autobiography “Life.” See review here. The Who has left its mark in the musical history. Pete Townshend certainly contributed a great deal to it, as documented in the book.

Happy Chinese New Year – The Year of Monkey

My favorite Monkey King Puppet on my desk
My favorite Monkey King Puppet on my desk

Today, February 8, 2016 is the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year. I want to wish you all a Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since I posted my last blog entry. I have read a few more books but have been procrastinating in writing book reviews for them. Stay tuned…

For the last few weeks, I have studied many network security issues and played with a couple of open-sourced network security software as part of my effort to boost my knowledge in the new network security industry I recently joined. What a huge learning curve to refresh my understanding of the TCP/IP stack and its subtleties! I will share some of my learning in the near future.

Monkey is an animal known for its intelligence and curiosity. May your new year is filled with your continued quest for more useful knowledge and intelligence that satisfy your curiosity.

Happy New Year!

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