Category Archives: Book Reviews

Leonardo Da Vinci

When I say “Leonardo,” you say? Most people would say “Di Caprio.” No, today I’m going to tell you and show you the story of Leonardo Da Vinci – an imaginative, ever curious and creative genius across multiple disciplines.

Ever wondered how the tongue of a woodpecker look like? Not I but he did. He noted on his notebook to look into it.

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452 in a little town, Vinci, near Florence, Italy. “Da Vinci” wasn’t really his surname but a way to identify him as the Leonardo from Vinci. He was born out of wedlock to a long lineage of notary professional. Luckily as an illegitimate son of Piero, he wasn’t able and willing to carry on the family tradition of notary.

As a “bastard,” he was never properly educated in Latin school to be a man of letters, instead he was mostly self-taught and become a disciple of experience and experiment. He lived through most of his childhood in Vinci until his step mother died in childbirth and his grandfather died shortly after. His father brought him, a teenager, to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance era and center of finance, trades, arts and knowledge. The city was run by wealthy bankers, then the innovators of debit-credit bookkeeping, who could afford to sponsor artists and entertainments like plays and carnivals. Think Manhattan, NY.

Recognizing Leonardo’s talents at 14 years old, his father secured an apprenticeship with one of his clients, Verrocchio, who ran one of the best workshops / sweatshops in Florence. This was where the students cranked up paintings, statutes for rich clients. When his father brought a wood shield for him to paint, he turned into an image of fire-breathing dragon-like monster with parts from dead animals like lizards, snakes, and bats.

In painting, his genius lied in his ability to see and deploy light and shade in ways that would produce the illustration of three-dimensional effect because of human eyes in resolving direct vs peripheral views.

Through his work in theatrical set, he mastered the theatrical movements, human expressions. His curiosity about human anatomy drove him to dissect at least 30 corpses. This was before refrigeration was invented so the dissection typically stopped when the smell from decaying flesh got to him. He came up with the theory about how human heart value work that was confirmed in 1950’s, more than 4 centuries after.

Leonardo was fascinated with military engineering. He conceptualized helicopter and came up with various military weapon designs like the chariots, giant bow machines.

Due to his curiosity about just everything in nature, he was frequently delinquent in delivering his work. He had to move around to find patrons. He moved around Florence, Milan and Rome.

One of his famous paining is the Last Supper. This was painted on the wall of Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

In his middle age, he was frequently compared to the Michelangelo, who was 23 years younger. Both were openly gay and wonderfully talented. No wonder it was called the Renaissance.

Mona Lisa was one of the paintings that he continued to perfect until his death

In his old age, he moved to France as King Francis I became his final patron. He died in 1519 at age of 67.

Leonardo Da Vinci left us with at least 15 paintings without his signatures, 7200 pages of undated notes that left us intrigued about him as he was intrigued by nature, and wonders of the world.

The Banana Man – The Fish That Ate the Whale


This story is based on the book “The Fish That Ate The Whale” by Rich Cohen.

I’m going to tell you a story about this guy, Sam Zemurrary, the Banana Man.

Some interesting facts about banana: banana is technically not a fruit but a berry that grow on a herb plant, not tree, and is tallest grass and largest plant without a woody trunk. Banana plant grows from a rhizome (like orchid or lotus) and has no roots and no seeds so it can only be propagated from a cutting. In other words, a banana species are all clones. This means, one disease that kills one banana plant can wipe out an entire species due to lack of genetic diversity. This has happened to a few species like “Big Mike” and “Cavendish.” So enjoy your banana while you can!

Enough about banana but why does it have to do with Sam Zemurray, the Banana Man? I don’t think there another person whose story is more entangled with a fruit or a berry than he was. Let me tell you his story.

Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jew, arrived in America in 1891 at age fourteen. He was tall, gangly and penniless. He saw a banana in 1893 for the first time, 20 years into American banana trade during the hay day of the steam-engine boats. Banana just became a popular, exotic imported luxury fruit. It can’t be easily grown in the US and even more difficult to transport due to its short shelf life and natural vulnerability. The 6-ft-3 Zemurray started out as a fruit peddler, a banana hauler, then a dockside hustler. He settled in New Orleans, got married at age of 31. His daughter was born a year later. He wanted to give her the best he could offer like most immigrant parents. To do that, he needs to grow his company and his supplier base. Where? Central America.

The first time Sam Zemurray visited Honduras, he bought 5000 acers of north-coast “junk” land immediately for $2000, all borrowed. Then he borrowed more and bought more land. Leveraging his knowhow from growing up in a Russian farm, he turned the land into a fertile banana farm. He bribed the Honduras government officials into giving him the best tax break. When the Honduras government tried to back out of the tax exemption sweet deal, he organized a mercenary team and overthrew the government. He ended up with an even better tax break.

When he expanded his plantation into Guatemala, he started butting against United Fruit’s territory. United Fruits was the biggest banana company at that time. As the conflicts between the two companies escalated within Guatemala, the US government stepped in to avoid destabilizing the region. Urged by the US government, both companies were forced to merge and occupy 64% of banana market share with anti-trust immunity. Zemurray walked away with shares of United Fruits, worth about $30M in 1929, or $420M now.

Was he ready to retire? Not quite. The Great Depression hit, he saw his shares of United Fruits dropped to only 10% or $3M. He came up with plan to turn around the company. When he presented his plan to the Board of Director, he was mocked, and turned away. A few months later, he returned to the Boston headquarter with proxy votes and fired the board and the CEO. Zemurray took over United Fruits as its CEO.

Then World War II happened. The banana ships were being sunk by German’s U-boats during transport. If that wasn’t bad enough, a personal tragedy hit him hard when his son’s, Sam Zemurray Jr’s plane went down and died in Africa serving as an Air Force pilot during the war. He was heart broken and started searching the true life meaning.

Up to 1948, he was never involved in any political advocacy for Jews. Surprisingly, he stepped down from his CEO position, and devoted his time to making sure Israel secured its statehood with 2/3 of the United National’s General Assemblies by influencing or bribing the several central America countries to vote yes. The state of Israel was born.

Zemurray eventually returned to United Fruits, which was forced to break up by US government to 3 smaller companies after involving itself in Central America conflicts during the Communist uprising – central character, Fidel Castro. Today we see pieces of United Fruits in Dole, Del Monte and others. United Fruits eventually became Chiquita as we know today after several ownership changes.

Samuel Zemurray died in 1961 at the ripe age of 84 with an estimated fortune of $30M, a big chunk of which he donated to local universities like Tulane.

Is Sam Zemurray a story of rages-to-riches immigrant’s fulfilling the American dreams, or a shrewd businessman sparing no means, mercy to get the results mimicking American’s aggression in Central America, or a man truly living life to its purposes? I would say, “all of the above.”

Book Review: “Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy” by Mo Gawdat


This is a book by an engineering-minded father to solve this mystery of achieving happiness in life.

– The author went to bat directly stating the what happiness is: an absence of unhappiness, the default state when we were a child. I like the exercise of writing down, “I feel happy when ______.” (Fill in the blanks.)
– It’s our own thought of unhappy events, not the actual unhappy events, that causes our own unhappiness. The trick is not to think about it. Don’t let it linger, which turns into a self-generated pain.
– The authors offers the 6-7-5 formula: bust the 6 illusions, fix the 7 blind spots and hang on to the 5 ultimate truths.

– The six illusions are:
1) thought: the little voice in your head.
2) self: you’re not the star of the movie.
3) knowledge: we don’t know that much after all. Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
4) time: live in the here and now. Life is now and now is amazing.
5) control: you can only choose your attitude. “It’s going to be fine in the end. If its not yet fine, then it is not yet the end.”
6) fear: learn to die before you die. It is time to face your fears.

– The 7 blind spots are
1) filters: our brain tells incomplete pictures due to its limitation.
2) assumptions: brain-generated story – not truth.
3) predictions: brain-generated future possibilities – not truth.
4) memories: a record of what you think happened – often not the truth.
5) labels: covers the truth in the absence of context.
6) emotions: our perception of truth is often distracted by our irrational emotions.
7) exaggeration: what’s more than the truth is less than true.

– The 5 ultimate truths:
1) now: Being fully aware of the present moment considerably increases your chance of being happy. Be aware means stop doing and just be. Be aware of your world outside, inside your body, your thoughts and emotions and your connection to the rest of being. Be aware of the journey where all of life happens.
2) change: when everything you do feels effortless, you’ll have found your path. Don’t just keep looking up for better material things. Look down and feel how fortunate we are. Gratitude is a sure path to happiness.
3) love: joy of true love is giving it. The more love you give, the more you get back. Choose to be kind instead of being right. Love is all you need.
4) death: accepting death will set you free. Surrender! Live before you die.
5) design: the author attempts to argue the “grand” design based on probability of our existence. It’s small, very small. But he believes that God does not intervene or run the show.

– It’s heartbreaking to have your son die on the operating table at his young age of 21. The author took it as his mission to define and seek happiness.
– The author really turned his son, Ali, into a saint the way he described his son. It’s only human to commemorate your lost loved one all the positives except there’s one time his son tattooed himself without telling him. Maybe Ali was a saint.
– The chapter on evolution vs. intelligent design was his attempt to “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God. He made an gallant effort to show how unlikely the randomness or probability can allow all the living things on this earth or universe. I think it’s well researched and argued for his case. However, the probability for a God to exist could be even more daunting. But his belief was more toward this non-intrusive God which/who just tilted the odd one way for things to happened as it has. I can probably live with that, but still find it hard to comprehend anyone/anything could have such a power.

Overall, it’s a great book for someone seeking happiness. If you’re depressed, experiencing personal or family tragedy and/or lacking life directions, this may be a good book for you. Highly recommended.

Book Review “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis


This is one of the great books written by Michael Lewis, one of my favorite authors. This book covers the friendship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics on the theory of the mind. To truly appreciate the book, you probably wanted to first read their theory, which you can read a summary from my book review of “Thinking Fast and Slow” here.

In the first chapter of the book, the author tried to bridge the Moneyball book to this book using an NBA analogy and the story of Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets. The objective was to emphasize the work of human judgement biases studied by the two Nobel Prize winners, the two central characters of the book. I was a little confused in the beginning, thinking the book was a sequel to “Moneyball.” But it wasn’t. The book went into great details of how the two men met each other in Israel and how to two men collaborate so well and the fallout of the relationship due to jealousy. But just before the death of Amos to cancer, they reconciled and all was good.

My takeaways are:
– You should be so blessed to find a true soulmate who can challenge your thinking and make you better than you could be without.
– Jealousy always plays a big role in relationships especially in the always-connected world because of Internet and Facebook. Try to avoid falling into the trap. Look farther in your horizon and rise above it to the best of your ability.
– On the other hand, if you’re the more successful one of your team, try to appreciate those who support you. It’s important to acknowledge them when you’ve succeeded.
– “Undoing,” the phrase, is a throwback to the last of the theories the two men worked together, which refers to the peeling back what you could have done or not done and whether that’s logical or not. Almost in all cases, we humans are not logical. There will always time and temptation to “undo” your past actions knowing what you know today. I suggest to not dwell in the past but live in the presence to the best you can. Life is too short.
– The author tries to put the two men’s work in a much plainer terms than all the technical jargon in their research work. For most people, he has succeeded and I thank him for reinforcing their ideas and work.

I enjoy this book because it highlights the “human-ness” on the two men who have somewhat succeeded in explaining human faults and biases.

Book Review: “The Telomere Effect” by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel


The book is about the science of aging. It started out with some science how aging process can be measured and go into great details on how to reduce the aging progress and live a healthy life. I recommend this book if you’re interested in living a long, healthy life.

A quick summary:
– Our life can be separated into two stages: “Health Span” and “Disease Span.” The trick is to keep the Disease Span short. If you want to live longer, keep the telomeres long.
– On the cell level, the lengths of the telomeres at the tip of our chromosomes shorten at each level of our cell divisions determine how fast we age and when they die. The telomeres can actually lengthens. Cells reaches a Hayflick limit around 50 times before they stop dividing and die. The longer the telomeres the more times your cells can divide.
– You can think of telomeres as the aglets (as at the tops of the shoe laces) of our chromosomes. The longer they are the less fraying/healthy the chromosomes get. They are the leading indicator of our health Span, hence total life span.
– Short telomeres correlates to heart diseases and lung diseases, cognitive slowing/Alzheimer, and inflammation.
– Increase Telomerase can keep Telomere long or lengthen them. Too much of it would cause cancer though.
– The rest of book is about doing things to keep the telomere healthy:
1) stress management,
2) resilient/positive thinking,
3) anxiety/depression management,
4) right amount of exercises,
5) sufficient sleep,
6) healthy weight (level of belly protrusion and insulin sensitivity),
7) good diets (omega-3s, leafy vegetables, flax oil and flaxseeds), reduce consumption of red meat and processed food, sugary foods and drinks,
8) maintain healthy relationship with our environment, especially our neighborhood,
9) maintain healthy relationship with our loved ones: be appreciative, be present and hug them.
10) for our young ones, support them and practice warm, nurturing environment

In summary, to live a long life we need to pay attentions to all aspects our life, from mental health, the physical health and our living environment. It’s no differenc5 than we already know except now we have a way to measure how well we’re doing – Telomere lengths.

Book Review: “Kill The Rising Run” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Killing the Rising Sun is one of those books that attract people to read about the history. As the saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat.” And I sincerely hope the history of World War II would not repeat. World War II didn’t happen too long ago; it was in my parents’ generation when it happened and is still vivid in their memory. We baby boomers and future generations benefited enormously from the sacrifices their generation made. All I knew was US dropped 2 atomic bombs in Japan in retribution to their attack on Pearl Harbor and quickly wrapped up the war. Oh, there were a few skirmishes in between trying to take over some islands for military bases.

Not so quick, there were so many events that happened and so many lives lost on both sides. In this book, the authors wrote a vivid chronology of how the U.S. was involved in World War II, the background stories of the European War, and the how U.S. refocused to fight Japan after that war was wrapped up with Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945. From the Japanese’s attack on the Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945 was a long nearly 4-year war. These days, it’s hard to imagine to be in a war that lasts more than a few days.

Overall, the stories read like a novel but that’s trivializing the many thousands of lives lost. It was riveting and mesmerizing – many of stories were told as observed by real people, instead of describing the general fact. Though we all knew what happened in the end. I kept on listening to the audiobook attentively, lest I missed anything. Very good read and a must read for those we can’t appreciate what good lives we’ve got now.

The book started with the battle of Pelelius, a Japan-occupied island near Philippines. This was the MacArthur’s triumphant return on his way to retake Philippines. On chapter 3, Harry Truman, a humble Missouri native came into the picture as the Vice President, after helping FDR re-elected. Quickly, the story moved toward the last year of the World War II when German’s surrender is almost secured when FDR gave away East Europe to Stalin of Russia and putting his focus on fighting Japan. Then MacArthur retook Philippines as the Iwo Jima battle was being concluded around February and March of 1945. These were important battle fronts that paved the way for US to get close to Japan for dropping the Atomic Bombs. Starting from Chapter 9 (about one third of the book), Truman inherited the US Presidency from FDR then the spotlight of the story was on the Atomic Bombs: the development and testing and the final drops. The fall of Okinawa on June 23, 1945, set up the final stage of the invasion of Japan that MacArthur wanted but it’s not up to him. There was a detailed description of the events leading to the sinking of USS Indianapolis by Japan’s I-58 submarine. Finally, the two Atomic Bombs: Little Boy and Fan Man sealed the fate of Japan’s surrender.

Key takeaways:
– The book started with a letter by Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt on a potential weapon that could be made using his Relativity Theory in triggering in splitting an atom (E= MC^2). FDR almost didn’t get it until the second time he heard about it. The Manhattan project was seeded on October 12, 1939 – almost 6 years before the bombs were dropped in Japan. Ironically, Einstein’s was never invited to the Manhattan Project to build the Atomic bomb because his “security” risk.

– The story about General MacArthur was less than flattering. I knew a little about his insubordination from the book Truman by David McCullough. It’s very clear that both FDR and Truman hated his guts. I don’t blame Truman though and would do the same thing by giving him a cold shoulder and not notifying of the A-bomb until a few days before they were dropped. MacArthur was famous for making grand shows in the public by having his “return” photographed and his towering photo over Emperor Hirohito after the war ended.

– It appears the premise of God-given “superior race” armed the German and Japanese soldiers with great courage and brutality against the “other inferior” races. It’s pretty sad that humans or the power, like the Japanese Emperor, propagated such myths to stay in the power. From these historical facts, shouldn’t we name racism as the source of all wars and evils?

– Kamikaze, the suicide planes, changed the war tactics. It’s very difficult to fight people or terrorism for that matter when your enemy is willing to commit suicide to win. This was a big headache for US Navy at that time. Many ships were destroyed as a result.

– The firebombs consists of cylinders of napalms destroyed a big parts of the cities including Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Kawasaiki and more than a million residents lost. but they didn’t make the same impact as the Atomic Bombs.

– The torpedo and sinking of of USS Indianapolis by a no-name Japanese submarine I-58 was rather ironic. USS Indianapolis carried the Little Boy atomic bomb to Tinian island before being sunk on its way to Manila. The rescue mission was accidental – how do you lose a battleship without people’s being aware of it? It’s a little Japanese victory that didn’t turn the tide for Japan but Charles McVay, the captain at helm, paid the price by committing suicide 23 years later.

– The second atomic bomb, Fat Man, was made for a Hollywood movie. The Bockscar B-29 plane couldn’t find its target and moved to Nagasaki target instead. It almost didn’t make it as back as it ran out of fuel upon its arrival at Okinawa – couldn’t even taxi off. And then the bomb was falsely activated in the air. So much excitement. At the end, it did its job of convincing Japan to surrender itself.

– The capture of Hideki Tojo at his farmhouse, despite his own failed suicide, a bullet that missed most of his critical organs, was an interesting, ironic story. He was later hanged for his war crimes.

– Emperor Hirohito escaped any war crime committed throughout the war was simply amazing to me. How MacArthur orchestrated the saving of his God-like face in front of the Japanese people, citing him as the stability factor. To me, that’s an oversight and atrocity.

– Russian’s invasion into China’s Manchuria and declaring war against Japan helped forcing Japan’s unconditional surrender. Later, it turned over the territory to the Communist China and contributed the demise of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT.

Book Review: “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi


Reading Homegoing is like eating at a Chinese banquet with 14 courses but each course could fill you up by by itself. And yet at the end, you feel completely satisfied, emotionally and intellectually enriched with what the black/negro human race went through last two hundred and fifty years or so. It’s like the modern version of “Roots” the movie and yet seem more realistic and multi-faceted like video recording the progressive scenes in many angles. The author captures the emotions with good usages of metaphors and descriptions, which in turn moves the readers in profound ways. Each of chapters or stories constitutes one episode of a series of 14 episodes. I can’t wait to see someone make them into a TV series.

The stories are hard to follow in the beginning as they happened about two hundred years ago and alternated between two genealogies, Effia and Esi the two half sisters, for which a genealogy chart on the first page comes in handy to reference occasionally during my reading book and listening to the audiobook. The audiobook narrated by Dominic Hoffman is fantastic with his slight African accent that seem to take on each character with fidelity.

I don’t usually read novels but this novel is a real treat even if you’re just remotely interested in the history of the negro race because in many ways they are stories of the underprivileged to nth degree. If the book doesn’t move you, then you’re either too stone-hearted to be in a human race or too numbed to feel the pain. To the most of us, I highly recommend this book.

Spoiler Alert: Stop here if you plan to read this book.
My key take-aways:
– The horrific condition of stacking hundreds of captured women slaves in the dungeon underneath the castle seem unbelievable. But it’s not surprising given the cruelty of slavery in itself.
– In fact, the slavery was already a common practice among the African tribes before the Whites started taking the black slavery and perhaps among the different white ethnics speak to the degree of cruelty the humans are capable of imposing. The roles of the black themselves contributing to the slavery was also explicit.
– During the Civil War, the awkward status of the blacks between the slave states and free states were captured in the book. Any black person can be kidnapped to be a slave in the southern slave states seem incredible to me. But that happened often as highlighted in two-shovel H’s story, who was falsely imprisoned in Pratt City, Alabama and turned into slaves digging in coal mines.
– Sometimes the betrayal of someone you love hurts no less than the hurt from the whites as in the case of Robert, the mostly white husband, to Willie, a religious, self-determined daughter of H.
– The underprivileged tend to be in a constant state of helplessness and get trapped in the drug abuse as in Sonny’s story. He could blame on abandonment of his father. But through the love and care of his mother, Willie and his son, Marcus, Sonny eventually won over drug abuse though precariously.
– Akua, the crazy woman, burned down her family hut because of her hallucination about this fire woman. Two of her children were burned to death and she was exiled out of the village after her husband, Asamoah the handicapped warrior stood out for her to save her life. Her son, Yaw, was sent to a remote place for schooling and came back to reunite with her after being a history teacher at his middle age. This story is a bit mystical but still believable.
– Yaw’s line of genealogy stayed in Ghana, Africa until he emigrated to Africa so you get a feel for what’s happening in Africa struggling for independence from England, while the other genealogy had descended from the slaves kidnapped to America struggling against injustice. The contrast between the two is interesting.
– I knew from the chart that there are two genealogies that will come together at the end. This kept me anxious to how the book will end. And I was not disappointed. The fear of fire and the fear of the water come together so beautifully at the end is a master piece.

Once again, the book offers a full course of history, vile human natures, and hope. And I am hopeful for the future of human race.

A few interesting youtube videos with the author Yaa Gyasi: