A Column of Fire

I got around Ken Follett’s latest 1,000 page brick: A Column of Fire. If you are looking for a good for book for the Holidays or a gift, this book will fit the bill. Like any of Ken Follett’s work, this book historically well researched.

The story starts in the late 1550s with Europe torn apart by religious conflict. This was a time when the Catholics burnt the Protestants and then the Protestants burnt the Catholics on the stake. The real enemies, then as now, are not the rival religions. The true battle pitches those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else—no matter what the cost.

Here’s a praised for the book: As Europe erupts, can one young spy protect his queen? International bestselling author Ken Follett takes us deep into the treacherous world of powerful monarchs, intrigue, murder, and treason with his magnificent new epic, A Column of Fire. – Amazon

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The Outsiders Lessons

Like I said in the past, I can’t recommend William Thorndike’s The Outsiders enough (More on the Outsiders). It’s one of the best book to have come out on investing in the last couple years. It’s about 8 CEOs that that had extraordinary returns over the long run. Except for Buffett, most people probably never heard of the 7 other CEO mentioned in the book. Here’s a potential blueprint for their success:

From the Preface:

They seemed to operate in a parallel universe, one defined by devotion to a shared set of principles, a worldview, which gave them citizenship in a tiny intellectual village. Call it Singletonville, a very select group of men and women who understood, among other things, that: 

  • Capital allocation is a CEO’s most important job.
  • What counts in the long run is the increase in per share value, not overall growth or size.
  • Cash flow, not reported earnings, is what determines longterm value.
  • Decentralized organizations release entrepreneurial energy and keep both costs and “rancor” down.
  • Independent thinking is essential to long-term success, and interactions with outside advisers (Wall Street, the press, etc.) can be distracting and time-consuming.
  • Sometimes the best investment opportunity is your own stock.
  • With acquisitions, patience is a virtue . . . as is occasional boldness. 

Pages: Preface xvi, xvii

A Man For All Markets

A Man for All Markets: From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market by [Thorp, Edward O.]

A Man For All Markets is Edward O. Thorp’s autobiography. I was looking forward to reading that book I wasn’t disappointed. Even though he is an icon, Edward O. Thorp might not be familiar name, so who is he? Thorp was an absolute intellect that despite his success he managed to stay under the radar. He didn’t subscribed to widely accepted views such as you can’t beat casinos or Wall-Street and he did. The first half of the book is his story. The 2nd half is filled with advice and insights. Plus Nassim Taleb wrote the foreword. So what are some of Thorp’s accomplishments?

  • Thorp figured out how to win at blackjack using card counting. Check. Thorp published the classic book Beat the Dealer. That book launched a revolutions in Vegas. If you like this kind of stuff you will love Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. These MIT guys took Thorp’s strategies and feed it roids.
  • Thorp then built the world’s first wearable computer and used it again to beat the house at roulette. Check. The computer used physics to calculate the momentum of a roulette wheel.
  • Play bridge with Warren Buffett. Check.
  • Thorp discovered what is known today as the Black-Scholes option formula, before Black and Scholes. Check.
  • Discovered that Bernard Madoff was a cheat in 1991. Check. Madoff got busted in 2008.
  • Beat Wall-Street. Check. Then wrote Beat the Market (Out of print, copies are going for $700+). He was the first modern mathematician who successfully used quantitative methods for risk taking.

This is a story of Thorp’s odyssey in science, mathematics, hedge funds, finance and investing. Thorp is not a guy that’s after money or fame. He is a very wealthy man but if he wanted to he could have been extravagantly more wealthy. To preserve his quality of life and to spend more time with his family, he decided not to pursue a number of very profitable business ventures. He like the exploration of ideas. He likes to solve problems. He like mental challenges. That’s what fuels him to beat the dealer and Wall-Street.

Thorp is 85 years and still very sharp. You can listen to him on Masters in Business podcast: Ed Thorp, the Man Who Beat the Dealer and the Market. He reminds me a lot of Buffett and Munger. They might be in their 80s and 90s, but their brain haven’t display any sign of aging.

This is a great book. Read it. Give it. Share it. Enjoy it.

 

The Story of French – A little bit of background on Quebec

I’m reading this random book, The Story of French by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow.  First, I should mention that you don’t need to have an interest in the French language to enjoy the book.  It’s a book that somebody gave me to give somebody else and I started to flip through it – And none of them are French. It’s actually very interesting and very well researched. It’s more of a history book and the role of French in shaping it. It’s really by accident that I started reading it. Sometimes randomness brings you the best moment.

Here are some screen shots on the Quebec chapter.

The Story of French Quebec 1 Continue reading “The Story of French – A little bit of background on Quebec”

I am Pilgrim

This is my review of I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. This is an excellent book and I highly recommended it. My wife also thinks it’s excellent and she’s the one who recommended it to me. We don’t have the same taste of books, so it’s a surprise, or a rare event I would say, that we both appreciate the same book. If you are looking for some summer reading, you won’t be disappointed with this book.

If you read the back of the dust jacket, you might think that the book is all over the place and it’s not for you. And in a sense, it is all over the place. But it was done on purpose. Usually that’s a recipe for disaster, except in this case. All the crazy events eventually ties up. The story takes you a on a wild ride. There’s two part to the story, which is the reason behind why this is a big book. The book combines both a murder mystery and a terrorist plot to unleash a cataclysm on America. The book takes into a series of strange events. The main character, “Pilgrim”, is a great character. He’s smart and insightful.

There’s a sequel to the book coming out next year, The Year of the Locust, which is coming out sometime next year. I also read some stuff about a movie studio picking the rights to the book/character. So this should be interesting but I don’t know how this story will hold up on the big screen. However Hollywood did make an excellent movie about a baseball stat book, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. So I’m sure they can figure out something. Terry Hayes is a Hollywood guy and his background is in movie scripts, so maybe he can work his magic. And congrats to Mr. Hayes on his first novel. It must be very different from going to movie scripts to a very long novel.

A Negotiation Win

Here’s an interesting quote from Sam Zell’s book, Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel:

My definition of a “win” is not binary. It is not a zero-sum game. Negotiation that leads to a winner and a loser rarely leads to a successful transaction or another one down the road. That’s how it’s been  throughout my business career. Sometimes my team argues with me-they can’t believe we’re leaving money on the table. But I want to create an environment where everyone wants to keep playing. (p. 220)

Zell knew that by making other side happy early on he could get more deals in the future. Everybody stays in the game and everybody keeps playing. Great mottos for anyone in business or investing.

The Forgotten Highlander

the-forgotten-highlander

I just read the The Forgotten Higlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific by Alistair Urquhart. Alistair who has died aged 97, was a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, surviving both the infamous ‘Death Railway‘ and the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The fact that he lived until he was 97 is a miracle. Alistair, as a POW, was constantly beaten, tortured, starved, malnourished, dehydrated, forced labor, and was hit with every tropical diseases you can think of (Malaria, cholera etc…). You can say that Mr. Urquhart hit hell’s equivalent of winning the Powerball jackpot. When you though that life couldn’t get worse, hell decided to step it up a couple notch. But Alistair was “lucky”. He survived (or maybe the ones that died were the lucky ones). But Alistair refused to die. He worked on the infamous ‘Death Railway‘, where thousands of British, Australian, Dutch, American and Canadian prisoners would perish in the task. He was put on a Japanese ‘hellship’ that was torpedoed. His book, The Forgotten Highlander, is his memoir. There’s a documentary on Youtube: The luckiest man in World War ll

The sad thing is that the POWs that returned were treated like absolute shit. The British government had insisted all POWs take a vow of silence, but like most veterans of the WWII he initially did not wish to speak about what he had witnessed. Britain said that they needed Japan has an allied against Russia, so they didn’t want to “offend” Japan.

Recently Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his country’s “profound grief” for the millions killed – but stopped short of offering any new apologies. He was remorseful for his country’s actions in the war, future Japanese generations should not have to keep apologizing.

PM Shinzo Abe said Japan “did inflict immeasurable damage and suffering” on “innocent people.” But he added, “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” Full transcript.

Almost every Japanese prime minister since 1945 has apologized in some fashion or another. But these apologies seem to have never been deemed sufficient. Why? To be fair, the Japanese people also suffered greatly during WWII. It’s the only nation that took the full massive devastation of atomic bombs — not one, but two. Unfortunately almost all of those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians.

Japan has committed some of the most horrendous war crimes. It’s not widely discussed and it’s downplayed. In school you are taught that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. dropped the bomb. That’s it. The issue is politically sensitive. I mentioned that the allied needed Japan as an ally after the war. That’s part of it. We are constantly reminded of the atrocities Nazi Germany committed. We can’t forget the horror of the Holocaust. We know about concentration camps, we know about Schindler’s List and Anne Frank. But we never talked about the crimes committed by the Empire of Japan. Japan did attacked the U.S., not Germany. What the Japanese did to the Chinese is on par or worse than that the Nazi did, think Nanjing Massacre. (It’s not just Japan, we don’t talk about Stalin’s brutality the same way we talked about Hitler’s.) Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Much of Nazi victims are Europeans with western culture (including European Jews), and Americans identify better with them compared to Chinese and South-East Asians who became the victims of the Japanese. The Japanese war crimes just wasn’t a Western problem, it was far from our eyes. We see the same attitude today towards massacre in Africa. We treat it as  “just another African problem”.

Japan has turned it around since the end of the war. Today Japan is a pacifist country. It’s sophisticated, developed and rich. Their army only participates in humanitarian missions. I’ve been to Japan. It’s a great country with amazing people that has accomplished so much after WWII.

Edge of Eternity

ken-follett-edge-of-eternityI finally got around writing the review for the last book of this trilogy which I finished last month. Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett is the conclusion to a trilogy that covers the 20th century.  This 1,000 page brick covers the event that followed WWII. So it touches the Cold War, JFK, the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War, the Civil Right movement, up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I’m not sure what there’s to say that hasn’t been covered in the first two posts about book #1: Fall of Giants, here, and Winter of the World, here. If you like history but having a hard time reading the stuff out there, these book provides entertainment and knowledge. You follow a bunch of characters/families throughout the major events that happened last century. The 20th century really shaped the way we live our life today, including two World Wars and a technology revolution (communications, TVs, media, airplanes, transportation/cars, Internet etc…)

My favorite was book #1, the one about WWI and the surrounding events. There was a lot I didn’t know about the first World War. The book did an excellent job explaining the complexity of the events leading up to the war. The second book covers WWII and the surround events. This last book covers a lot, from the 1960s to the fall of the Berlin Wall. That’s a lot of stuff and it doesn’t feel like you are reading a 1,000 page book. These books are excellent and might get even better over the years as the 20th century becomes a distant memory.

Winter of the World

winter-of-the-world
I recently finished Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy. It took me longer than the first book of the series and I finally got through this 1,000 pages brick. This is book two of the century trilogy. You can read my review of the first book, Fall of Giants, here. The completed work runs more than a 3,000 pages. The Century Trilogy a set of historical novels spanning all the major events that shaped our modern lives today. The length of the book hasn’t doomed it from becoming a bestseller. This is a major accomplishment in the 140 character world.

The first book focus on the events leading to WWI and the Great War itself. The second book, the one I just finished, deals with the events that led up to WWII, the rise of Hitler, and the aftermath.  This is what it’s on the back cover:

Winter of the World follows its five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—through a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the great dramas of World War II, and into the beginning of the long Cold War.

This is a solid follow up.  Like the first book, it’s a mixture of fictional characters and real events. There are also real characters such as leaders of countries and historically significant people. Ken Follett is known for his deep research and it shows. But I think I liked the first book of the trilogy better so far. My wife, which has read all three books of the series, liked the second one her favorite. Maybe I liked the first better since I learned a lot more. Nevertheless, this is a great story. There’s a lot of drama and historical information. It’s amazing how Follett manage to connect everything together. If you start reading you will get suck it and will consume you for days or weeks.

One fact that people seem to not know is that the German people have voted to put Hitler in power. Why would they do that you might ask? This requires its own post and is a phenomenon that must be studied and remembered so that kind of event doesn’t repeat itself. The short answer is that Germany was going through some brutal times in the 1920s, and the social and economic conditions in place at the time planted the seeds for Adolf Hitler to rise.

If there’s one thing about the book that bugged me, is that there are too many romantic relationships. But I guess most people like that and the series wouldn’t be so popular without it. It’s just not my thing. But the romantic relationships are important since you need the next generation for the next book. Another thing: This is a book on World War II and there’s not much on Japan. Except for Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombing, Japan is pretty much left out. Japan is in the book since you can’t ignore it but it’s overlooked. I feel that’s the general feeling when people think of WWII, it’s very Eurocentric even though it’s a “world” war. We are remembered of the genocide in Europe but we never talk about what the Japanese did to the Chinese.

I’m looking forward to finishing this trilogy with the third volume of the series, Edge of Eternity. You can read an excerpt of the third book edge_of_eternity_chapter1. If you want to learn more about history but you find it boring, this series is a great way to learn more in an entertaining way.

Behind Every Great Man

failure-is-not-an-optionNASA Flight Director Gene Kranz wrote,

“Behind every great man is a woman – and behind her is the plumber, the electrician, the Maytag repairman, and one or more sick kids. And the car needs to go into the shop.”

From: Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz.