Book Review: “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J. D. Vance


This is a story or memoir about a young boy living under the most adverse environment of the hillbilly family and became a successful attorney through his own perseverance and lots of help from some members of his family. By definition, hillbilly refers to an unsophisticated country person, associated originally with the remote regions of the Appalachians. The author’s family matches that definition well.

In the book, he talks about the history of his family members started from the great grand parents to his early young life. Then he covers his teenager years staying with his grant parents, followed by his joining the marines. Finally, he describes his effort in returning to college and getting a Yale Law degree and marrying his wife.

In this book you get to understand the family culture of a hillbilly family but you’ll learn that it’s hard to succeed in life without some help from someone you care about, in his case, his grandmother, who he called “Mamaw”, and his grandfather, who he called “Pamaw.”

The author is critical of the hillbilly’s mentality: contradicting beliefs on defending family members and cheating on them, being tough and yet lazy, being religious and claiming church-going and yet have low statistics of church-going and violating commandments. In fact people in the the church-belt region have a lower church attendance.

He learned the evolved rules of fighting from his Mamaw. Fight only in defense of yourself, but sometimes you’d need to fight even if you’re not defending yourself. He was taught the trick of fighting: turn side way with your shoulder against the opponent and punch in the belly button.

Constant moving without a stable environment could do severe damage to a kid’s life as in the author’s case, especially when the environment was of constant fighting and even violence between his mom and the boyfriends/husbands, resulting in “revolving” doors of father figures. The key indicator was his school grades and poor health due to distress. Conflict resolution is not his mom’s strong suit, nor of the “normal” hillbillies. His mom even attempted suicides by crashing her car, later drug abuses.

His relationship with his mom was a treacherous one. It went from a parent/son relationship to room-mate, sometimes abuser including one time that she threatened to crash the car with him in it. He escaped and hide himself in a stranger’s home, whose door was broken in before being dragged out by his mom who was eventually arrested by cops. It was a scary moment for a kid who would have to lie in the court to get his mom out of trouble.

The author adores his sister, Lindsey, who he called his protector from his Mom when he was most vulnerable. He describes the time when her childhood modeling when up in flames. He probably wouldn’t stand a chance without his “half-“sister as he later found out in great distress that his big sister has a different father.

Mamaw considered herself a religious person and read bibles often but didn’t go to church, which she considered as “organized religion” with contempt – “a breeding ground for perverts and money changers.” Mamaw was a strong influence on his getting good academically when he spent his last three and stable years of high school with her.

The author got into more details of his relationship with his dad who gave up his parental right and allowed him to be adopted by Bob, who disappeared from his life after just over a year. His father’s story was more reasonable why he gave up – to not cause any more trauma in his son’s life. The father-son relationship developed later in his life.

His relationship with Papaw (grandfather) was a special one. He drew his father figure from him – a classic, terrifying hillbilly. When he was 13, his Papaw passed away after not showing up in his Mamaw’s house. The funeral brought back all the good and interesting stories about his Papaw.

He joined the marine to get trained in physical and mental toughness and fitness and became and acted like an adult as seen by the barber in the corner store where he walked by many times in Middletown. He was able to payback somehow to his Mamaw until her death, the end of his “protector.” The marine taught him many life lessons, leadership skills and the confidence of achieving to his best abilities by giving his all.

He told of his college life and decision to go for a Law degree and how he got accepted to Yale. At Yale, he describes occasions of “class tourism” trying to know how the upper class works, interacts, dresses and behaves. It was foreign to him and yet opened many doors to him. His experience at Yale, whether to apply to editor role in the Yale LawJournal, apply to judge clerkship and what it means to your law career could be helpful for someone looking into the legal profession. And importantly he knew how to leverage his “social capital.”

Having been in an abusive family environment, ACE “Adverse Childhood Events,” or he called “hillbilly school of hard knocks,” he developed a run-away reaction to conflicts. He had to overcome that fight-or-flight impulse with his relationship with his wife, Usha. What kept him alive at the young age turned out to be an obstacle for him to assimilate to the “normal” society, like fighting for his “honor” when someone cut him off while driving.

It was heartbreaking that he had to check in his mother to a motel when he was informed that his mother passed out in a car with a needle stuck to her vain. In contrast, he turned out well fighting the demons from growing up in that environment.

This is a great book for someone not exposed to the hillbilly culture to understand their plight and why our current President Donald Trump managed to win the election with their help.

I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah


I heard about Trevor Noah, when it was announced by Comedy Central that Trevor Noah, who?, was going to replace Jon Stewart. Where did this guy come from. I watched a few of his comedy shows and saw that he was very funny. Then this book came out. The title was definitely catchy. A crime to be born into a mixed-race family! Where was this? When did this happen? That’s when I got hooked. I utterly enjoyed this book and highly recommend this book to anyone who don’t appreciate and understand racism, poverty, and how some part of the world lived. It would definitely make you appreciate what we’ve got in this country.

– Intro page before each chapter set the tone or foreword for the chapter. Nice style.
– The book started out with this story of his being thrown out of minibus as a 10+ year-old youngster by his mother because his mother saw the danger of being killed by the opposing tribes men. He survived and fall and ran – his key survival talent.
– Since he was born “illegally” because his mother’s desire to have her own family, he was frequently hidden from public eyes to avoid having to explain his fair skin.
– Ultimately you identify with the people surrounding you. He considers himself black because he’s surrounded by black family members. He told this hilarious story of his shitting inside the house as his blind great grandmother Koko “smelled” on. The outcome was simply outrageous when the family decided it was Satan’s work to leave the poop in the garbage can. He also told of the story of being a chameleon (white, black or colored) because he could speak a few dialects and English.
– He had many run-ins with troubles. One time he accidentally burned down a house by leaving a magnifying glass on a mattress where the sun came in. He’s a trouble maker since young age.
– Pets stories: Cats are perceived as witches. His first pet was gutted and hung when he came back one day due to the superstition of country men. Then he moved on dog. Fufi’s story: “you don’t own the thing you love.” He discovered in his young age that his Fufi was also owned by another family during time he was in school.
– Girls story: got dumped on Valentine’s day once, then he had a crush with this girl but he never told her his feeling then one day she’s moved out of the country. Then on Trevor’s prom night with Babiki, the most beautiful woman that he never had a conversation with and lastly found that they didn’t speak the same languages. Sad and funny!
– At some point he reconnected with his white father after a 10-year gap. He found that his father, Robert, kept track of his career all these years. Despite their lack of deep relationship, they kept a safe distance from each other to his dad’s liking as Robert was a very private man.
– Distinctions between colored, black and white. Chinese are treated as colored and Japanese are treated as white during apartheid. Apartheid encourage struggled between races.
– To survive the hood, he was a food dealer because he ran fast, sells pirated CD’s, bartering stolen things to make extra money. He learned the basic of business that way.
– Almost got caught stealing chocolate bar, instead his best friend, Teddy, was arrested. Despite the video recording, he was never picked out.
– Trevor’s adventure into CD pirating and DJ. “Go Hitler”chanting shocked the Jewish school.
– Very good observations on legal laws and parents’ rules: laws appear to be more rational than parents’ rules; parents server as the “judge, jury, and executioner for your entire childhood, and it feels like they give you a life sentence for every misdemeanor.” Noah’s one-week experience in the jail for driving his step-dad’s car without permission and getting stopped by police who mistook him as a carjacker. His experience in jail clearly highlight the tensions of races among the white, black and colored. Ironically, the “colored” gang’s reputation protected and confused him at the same time. He ended up sided with the “white” as they tend not to be hard criminals. Because of multi-lingual skill, he also managed to help this “hulk” guy in communication with the police. At the end, he was bailed out by his mother.
– Mother’s love really showed when said, ” “Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.” I’ve seen similar quotes from people who had a difficult childhood and turned out good. It really takes all a mother can give to not have the children gone astray and that’s mother’s love for you. After his mother had her second son, she wouldn’t use violence any more as Noah said, “relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them.”
– Being a “colored” person in South Africa could be very confusing. This quote of his spelled out his dilemma: ” Because racism exits, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side.
– The last chapter was a heartbreaking story about his mother’s being subjected to the domestic violence of his step father, Abel, who turned into a tyrannical monster after quitting weed and started drinking himself to his failed car garage, despite the his skill and all the efforts of Noah’s mother to turn the business around.
– The first time his step father hit his mom was when his was 9 years old. He and his mother endured many more years of beating from Abel who at Noah’s 6th grade beat him violently because his faking his mother signature to avoid going to some classes. Noah was able to move out but his mother, Patricia was trapped with two sons from Abel.
– The tragic ending happened when Noah got a call from his little brother that Mom was shot by Abel. He rushed back to see his mother at the hospital and discovered miraculously that though she was shot in the head, the bullet missed all the critical organs, arteries, veins without causing too severe of a damage. During his hospital stay, he discovered that she didn’t have a the medical insurance. He was willing to pay the hospital bills but the discussion of “black tax” came up where the children couldn’t get out under the spell of the poverty because he had to pay for the sins or debts of the family. And the vicious cycle continues as they plunged into poverty themselves. There was another observation his made that mothers would offer the children unconditional love but not necessarily reciprocated by their children. I thought about it and agreed with him on that.

This was a great read for me to understand and appreciate the upbringing of a man born into a unfortunately circumstance (mixed-race family) in an odd country during the changing time of the country. There was pain, love, hate, crime, and drama all wrapped into this one man, now a successful comedian. What a story! I don’t think any fictional author could come up with a better story.

Book Review: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth


I listened to the audiobook a couple of months ago. It’s so good to know scientifically that efforts or “grits” plays a bigger role in a person’s success than talents. In this book, Angela Duckworth showed that through research, observations, and convincing evidences that the right approaches to raising a successful kid is to raise their “grit.” I think I had concluded long time ago that effort or “grit” plays a bigger factor than talent but it’s definitely easier when you’ve got talents and being modest about it by applying extra effort to be successful.

The book basically started out showing you what grit is and why it matters (Part I). Then the author shows you how to grow grits from inside out through interest, practice, purpose and hope. Next she shows you how to grow grit from outside in via parenting for grit, playing fields, and culture.

This is a very informative book for those who want to succeed and want their loved ones to succeed in life.

Short Summary:

Part I: What grit is and why it matters
By author’s definition, to possess grit is to have two characteristics: 1) unusually resilient and hardworking (perseverance), 2) know in a deep way what they wanted (passion). The author chose as examples the West Point cadets training and success rate, spelling bees contest, and his growing up and career choices (management consultant to inner city middle-/high-school teacher to being a psychology researcher. Can talents be distracting? Yes, because it came too easy for them. The author came up with an equation: talent x effort = skill, skill x effort = achievement, this means that talent x effort^2 = achievement. Might want to try the treadmill test.

How to grow more grit? It takes both nature (genes) and nurture (experience). The Flynn effect explains why as a species, we’re getting bettery in abstract reasoning. All of us are getting smarter (higher IQ) due to the social influence. To grow grit, you need to first have an interest, then practice, purpose, and finally hope. More on the four in Part II.

Part II: Growing grit from the inside out
Interest: “Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.” Interests are NOT discovered through introspection but are triggered by interactions with the outside world, supported and encouraged by your loved ones, teachers or peers. “Sample” your interests first like an athletes before focusing on one or two interests. The author cited several stories including those of Jeff Bezo’s upbringing, Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle master. Follow your passion but it’s helpful to understand how passions are fostered – keep on experimenting.

Practice: “Continuous improvement” or Kaisen is the key to practice – look forward and grow. The average of 10K hours over 10 years seems to be the norm to be a world expert. It takes “deliberate practice” according to Ericsson’s research 1) set a stretch goal, 2) full concentration and effort, 3) immediate and informative feedback, 4) repetition with reflection and refinement.
To get to the “flow” experience durin performance, you must have sufficient “deliberate-practices” behavior in preparation.

Purpose: defined as the intention to contribute the well-being of others. The more gritty you are, the more purpose-driven and less pleasure-driver you are. Do you have a job, or a career, or a calling? Keep asking yourself “Why? Why? Why?” It’s suggested that you reflect on how the work you’re already doing can make a positive contribution to society. Also do “job crafting” by thinking about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values.” Lastly, find inspiration in a purposeful role model? In author’s case, it’s her mom.

Hope:: Taking a chapter from Carol Dweck’s Mindset book, learn the “growth” mindset rather than the “fixed” mindset. Having a feeling of control (or hope) in spite of difficulties at young age could help develop grit. Need to learn how to succeed as well as how to fail. Author recommends going from “growth mindset” to “optimistic self-talk” then to “perseverance over adversity.” Of course, having someone to encourage you goes a long way.

Part III: Growing grit form the outside in
Parenting for grit:: Ex-49er, Steve Young’s upbringing provides a grit example: his father taught him not to give up too easily in making the baseball and football team. “Endure to the end,” his father, Grit Young said. Be the wise parent: demanding and supportive. Commit to Hard Thing Rule: pick a hard thing and try to do your best.

Culture of Grit: Seattle Seahawks’ head coach, Peter Carroll builds a culture of grit.

Ted Talk:

Talks at Google:

Book Review: “A Girl with All the Gifts” by M. R. Carey


I heard of this book through a youtube channel that recommended this book highly. Little did I know that it’s been made to a movie. Then I went ahead and watched the movie half way through the book, which sort of spoiling the ending for me but I was hoping the book ending would differ from the movie, but no, it’s not as predictable as other books/movies when humans win back the world. The book was well written and in fairly good pace. Most of time, I thought I was watching/reading the “Walking Dead,” which I follow except the zombies or hungries were faster and meaner with a faster and more deadly consequence when infected – they turn immediately. Since we don’t know the ending of the Walking Dead, we cannot compare the endings.

I thought Justinau was a bit more aggressive than I expect a teacher to be. The two soldiers, Parks and Galagher were what they should be – courageous and masculine. Caldwell, the scientist, was dedicated to saving the humans and was willing to try any means, including cutting up children’s brains, to be the savior of man kind – very believable. Melanie, was portrayed as a smart kid who learned from the best, loyal to people who’s kind to her but ultimately self-determined when she had to choose between humans and her kind. She had the gifts of being half humans and hungries and possessed the ability to switch back and forth.

There are subtle differences between the book and movie: 1) no “junkers” (human bandits) in the movie, probably because of the time limitation. 2) Ms. Justineau was nicer in the movie than in the book, probably because Dr. Caldwell, acted by Glenn Close, seemed meaner to be Justinau’s punch bag. 3) The grand tower of fungus climbed on a tall building instead of its own – probably better visual in the movie.

Overall, I enjoy and recommend the book and the movie; it’s a nice mental getaway from daily grind of work and escape from the weighty non-fiction books. Nothing like an apocalyptic book can put you in proper perspectives.

Here’s a quick review of the book and the movie. Be aware that the review will spoil/reveal the ending. You might want to wait until you read the book or watch the movie. Also the author M. R. Carey had the foresight or privilege of writing the book and the movie script simultaneously. Very clever. The movie differs slightly from the book but mostly follow the book’s plot.

The book started with the imprisoned kids being strapped in wheel chairs during a class room really piqued my interest in the beginning. It gets more interesting or suspenseful when the zombie characteristic was revealed in those kids. This was where it reminded me of the “Walking Dead” or other zombie movie.

Melanie was the girl with all the “gifts.” What kind of gifts? You’ll discover along the way as story continues. The book was written in the present tense to enhance the suspense as if you are watching the story unfolds. Ms. Justineau was the teacher who’s teaching all these special kids, who could turn into monsters like the other “Hungries” who at this time most of the humans have become after being infected by the fungus of a funny name. However, these kids were special because they possessed most of the human characteristics until they smelled humans or living things, at which time the monster or the fungus-occupied brain would take over, attack and feed on all living things. To prevent them from “turning,” the humans had to put on e-blocker to prevent the human scents. The kids were stationed in a special research camp for Dr. Caldwell to research and cut/slice their brain cells for experimentation.

Then the camp got run over by hungries, leaving Justinau – the teacher, Caldwell – the scientist, Sargent Parks – the protector, Galagher – Park’s subordinate and of course Melanie. They ran from one place to another trying to get to Beacon, the headquarter of human intelligence. Along the way, they found Rosie, the special, mobile research truck that Caldwell use to work in. At this time, they encountered a bunch of kids like those in the camp, except they’re raw and uneducated. They attacked Rosie and ended up killing all humans because of Melanie’s scheme in tricking Parks into starting the flame of the grand tower, the mother of all fungus. In doing so, the spores from the hard pods were spread into the air and infected all humans, turning them into “hungries,” except for Justinau who would stay in the Rosie and teach the kids language and culture just like the beginning of the story. I don’t think she would last long in that truck, but that’s another story.

I was hoping that humans would make a comeback and retake the world but the ending ushered in the demise of humans and the beginning of new civilization when the fungus and human form would coexist, starting with these kids. Now, how they were going to propagate themselves, we don’t know or weren’t told. Maybe that’s for a sequel…

Book Review: “Unfinished Business” by Nora Roberts

I’m not much of a novel aficionados, but once a while I’d like to kick back and learn about how stories are told to help my narration skill, which is important for speeches and conversations.

Just finished the novel while on vacation in Southern California. It’s a good novel to read when you are on vacation, relaxed and bored without the stimulation of work and Internet. I’m not sure why this novel is so highly rated but I enjoyed it all the same. A graduating high-school girl got taken out of her comfort zone in a small fictitious small town, Hyattown, and became successful being a virtuoso pianist, thanks to her Dad’s direct control and command without her Mom next to her. She came back to see her Mom after her father died of cancer and re-acquainted with her first love, Brady Tucker. The story was about what she found out why her Mom didn’t connect with her all these years and how she handled her first love, Brady. This is a fine romance book and a little of a mystery book to read while on vacation. Not really earthshaking. The book, “Unifinished Business” is written in omniscient narration point of view. The narrator knows everything and all points of views and their thinkings at the time. It doesn’t beat around the bush too much for those impatient readers. I enjoyed it but the plot was quite predictable though there were some small mysteries to keep the readers interested: like why her Mom never contacted her and who her Mom was with all these time. This is a perfect novel to read if you don’t want to think too much, especially in a vacation. More on the plots below: Spoiler Alert!

Vanesa came back from years of touring after her father died of cancer. She saw her Mom for the first time since she left for Europe to achieved what she achieve, thanks to her father’s moulding and pushing. She came back to Hyattown and had to reconnect with her Mom, who had fell in love with her family doctor. Vanesa carried a grudge against her Mom why she didn’t contact all these years when she was accomplishing all she did with her Dad. By the way, this type of situation probably wouldn’t happen nowadays with all the mobile technology we have in our hands. Just texted or Facebook your Mom, Vanesa! Meanwhile, she fell in love again with the high-school sweetheart, now a family doctor and also a son of her Mom’s fiance and the brother of her high-school friend. Brady Tucker was still handsome and full of emotion for her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to rekindle the emotion for him. Then she got more comfortable with the small town people, who kept bringing their children to her to teach piano lessons. But more importantly she got more familiar and in love with her Brady, now a mature, responsible family doctor. After a small performance in a fictitious European country, Cordina, Vanesa finally figured out what she really wanted – to be with Brady.

Maximize Refresh Rate for 4K Monitor – A LearnByBlogging Quick Tip

I recently bought a 4K monitor (LG – 27″ IPS LED 4K UHD FreeSync Monitor model 27UD68) with 4x the HD (1K High Definition 1920×1080) resolution or 3840×2160 resolution. Upon its arrival, I was so excited to set it up and hook it up to my computer, which I already checked before ordering that its embedded graphic controller can support 3840×2160 resolution based on the Intel CPU Description by searching for the CPU’s “ark.” For example, my computer has an Intel i5-4590 CPU. I googled and saw my CPU can support 3840×2160 resolution based on Intel’s ARK here, it should support 3840×2160 without any problem.

After plugging the DisplayPort to HDMI cable that connected the DisplayPort to the computer and HDMI port to the monitor, I saw the wonderful 4K display. Everything looked smaller but with a high resolution, just like Apple’s Retina Display. The only problem was that my computer appeared to be not very responsive to my mouse and scrolling actions. It’s very annoying. I almost wanted to switch back to my original HD 1K monitor.

Then I looked closely at the graphic display, I saw that the display was only running 29 Hz refresh rate. I tried to force the refresh rate 60 Hz but it wouldn’t let me, complaining that it exceeded the maximum bandwidth for the port. After examining the spec closely, the HDMI port supports only HDMI 1.4, which according to Wiki page, can support up to 30 Hz at 3840×2160. In other words, the refresh rate limitation is on the HDMI protocol, not the CPU nor the system. Then I checked again and saw the DisplayPort can support up to 3840×2160 @60Hz. I immediately changed the cable from DisplayPort to DisplayPort. The computer immediately register 59 Hz automatically. Wow! It made a huge difference on how I perceived the responsiveness of the display. It’s like day and night.

My key takeaways:
1. The display refresh rate has a lot to do with how you perceive the responsiveness of your computer.
2. Always check if your computer or laptop can support the display mode your new monitor is capable of running. Check with the CPU spec by googling the specific CPU model name.
3. Don’t count on the HDMI port to support 4K monitor at 60 Hz unless it’s capable of HDMI 2.0. Use DisplayPort to get the maximum resolution at a high refresh rate.

Comcast Login Error when Watching AMC Episodes – How I Fixed It – a LearnByBlogging Quick Tip

For the last few weeks, I have trying to watch my favorite AMC shows like “The Walking Dead” on my computer. Typically, when you click on Watch Episode which AMC allows you to watch the full episodes within 70 days of the showing, it will ask for your cable provider. See below:

My cable provider is Comcast. When I selected Xfinity (the Comcast proxy), the browser would hang for a few seconds then came out with a comcast login failure. This would happen when you select Xfinity, nothing else. I’ve tried for weeks without success and googled around without a clue how to fix it.

How did I fix it? I just logged into Comcast Xfinity site. It prompted me to identify the name of device. I entered “My Computer,” then I was able to search and watch the “Walking Dead” program. Afterward, I could now go to the AMC site, select my episode, and select Xfinity. Voila! I could now watch any episode at will.

Learn by Blogging (and Sharing) – Derek Tsai's Personal Blog