How Goldman Sachs become the most powerful institution in the world

“Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs came to rule the world” by William D. Cohan”

This is a very thorough biography of arguably the most powerful financial institution in the world, Goldman Sachs.

Despite written with the co-operation of the top people at Goldman, it doesn’t censor any wrongdoings and instead it reveals the complete spectrum of the firm from the ugly side of the vampire squid to the absolute masters of the universe, which have mold them into what they are today whether we like it or not.

It reminds me of George Orwell who said “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Although this is not an autobiography the logic still applies, and “something disgraceful” are in abundance.

As with any other story of the best of the best, their journey is a very long and treacherous one, from a peddler with a horse-drawn cart to small family business shop selling clothes to sole proprietorship to investment banking novice to growing pains and eventually to the distinguishable master of power and money. And the book captured their story quite magnificently.

It is filled with all the family drama, the infighting with partners, the cheating and backstabbing, the trading scandals, trading successes, the profitless years, the profitable years, the Penn Central fiasco, the sex scandals, civil lawsuits, suicide, succession problems, the high divorce rate, their involvement in propping up financial house of cards of crook Robert Maxwell, the many boardroom battles, the leadership coup, the insider trading cases that look like the episodes of TV series Billions, hostile takeovers, mergers and acquisition wars, the many more deals done by Goldman which often occurred alongside their law firm Sullivan & Cromwell that oftentimes look like the episodes of Suits, and the seemingly minute-by-minute account of the subprime mortgage bubble and crash.

It also filled with the background stories of its larger-than-life characters that are worthy of a TV series, from childhood to the road to Goldman and until their progressive rise from bottom to the very top of the ladder of the company. Characters such as Sidney Weinberg, Gus Levy, Bob Rubin, the two Johns, the new two Johns, Bob Freeman, Steve Friedman, Jon Corzine, Hank Paulson, Lloyd Blankfein – all of whom became a legend in Wall Street -, as well as many other names that became prominent in their own right, such as Christian Siva-Jothy.

The book adds nice little details and plot twists along the way, such as how Goldman Sachs and its arch enemy Lehman Brothers used to be close allies, the sweet story of how Bob Rubin’s parents met, how the men in Gus Levy’s era acted literally like the Wolf of Wall Street, Senior Partner Sydney Weinberg’s role as advisor for presidents (FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson), the Goldman-Washington revolving door, how the HR office’s telephone never stops ringing during the “amnesty period” for office extramarital affairs, the endurance test of 20 interviews before recruitment, how they train their new recruits, or how close it was for Goldman Sachs to go bankrupt (several times).

While the way Goldman people themselves explained how they do several trades is nothing short of amazing, the book also paints the many scenes at the trading floor including during the Word War 2 and the free for all trading culture in Goldman’s trading room in the 1990s. And for every investment banking or M&A deals, the book analysed them in minute details.

Moreover, in writing the book, the author, William D. Cohan, uses all the best of the best reference, including the famous “Goldman Sachs: The culture of success” by Lisa Endlich when discussing about the Goldman way, “When Genius Failed” by Roger Lowenstein for the LTCM debacle, “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis for the subprime mortgage crash, and even THAT anti-Goldman Rolling Stones article by Matt Taibbi for the Goldman image problem.

All in all, the coverage feels so rich and complete that by the end of the 611 pages book if the author says “and that’s it, that’s everything covered” I’d believe him.

Ultimately, reading this book is like reading war stories and its brilliant tacticians. The morality and humanity of whether or not we should go to war in the first place is out of the question, and instead as the war is already happening the question now becomes who are the best and what strategies are they using? To that end, in the context of corporate America at its most vicious environment of predatory capitalism, Goldman Sachs emerge as the undisputed master of the game and the rulers of the world. Love it, absolutely love it.

Philosophy’s greatest hits

“The Philosophy Book: Big ideas simply explained” by Will Buckingham et al

This is philosophy’s greatest hits, featuring all the most influential philosophers throughout the ages. It is a good summary introduction on possibly every big philosophical ideas ever conceived, a good starting point for more deep explorations.

It provides us with the environmental, cultural, and personal contexts in which the ideas came about, and it shows their gradual progressions, cross-influences, and sometimes counter arguments into what becomes a modern thinking that we have now.

The book, however, does not only cover what would be considered as “traditional” philosophers such as Socrates, Voltaire, Spinoza, Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard. But it also includes a broad spectrum of thinkers whose ideas have largely shaped their own respective fields, such as Avicenna (medicine), Machiavelli (politics), Pythagoras (math), Ludwig Wittgenstein (language), Adam Smith (economics), Charles Darwin (science), even Karl Marx (class struggle), among many, many others.

As a recovering Tsundoku-ist (only bought 2 new books this year (so far) to add into my pile of 200+ unread books), I bought this book 10 years ago when the DK Big Ideas series had only just begun with Philosophy and Psychology books. And over the years I only read it scatterly, and never devour it cover to cover like I eventually just did. However, even when reading it randomly the book had already serves me as a some kind of Wikipedia rabbit hole, where it introduces me to some of the big names that I have never heard before (and there are plenty of them in the book) that led me to do follow up readings.

One of the most profound examples is Averroes. When I first read about Averroes in this very book, it prompted me to read several articles and 2 more books about him, one of which opened up my eyes on the incredible Golden Age of Islam, which was very enlightening. This occurred several more times over the years, with the book notably became the first one that also introduced me to Stoicism (I have since read 14 books on Stoicism and live according to its principles).

All in all, it is a fairly light book that breaks down the heaviest ideas into bite-size meditations. It is a treasure trove of a book, a big book, with every sense of the word.

How to teach our kids about money

“The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising kids who are grounded, generous, and smart about money” by Ron Lieber

This book addresses one of the most crucial factors on parenting: how to teach our kids about money.

It covers pretty much everything that you can think of on the subject, including allowance, materialistic trends, peer pressures, how long do we make our kids wait for what they want, how to prevent our kids to become a spoiled brat, down to how much “tooth fairy” should pay for one tooth (which apparently is experiencing a price bubble as we speak).

The book also hit upon the dilemma of loosening the rules at special occasions, on engaging the ego-stand off between parents, on trade offs (such as spending less now in order to have more money later), to teach the kids how to be grateful and humble, how to be compassionate and understanding to the less fortunate, how to behave among the more fortunate, what to do during holidays, and ultimately, addressing on how much is enough?

The format of the book takes life lessons from many case studies, by ordinary parents doing ordinary things just like you and me. Stories that are explained with science and psychology, and include the opinions of child psychologists and personal finance experts, and what they themselves are doing in regards with parenting.

On a personal level, it is a very helpful book for preparing myself for what’s to come in the future, considering I have 2 small kids in elementary school. And while the book is for educating our kids, it is also hugely applicable to us the parents. After all, the author, Ron Lieber, repeatedly state that we’re in the adult-making business, and the lessons in the book are as good as for kids as it is for adults.

Now, if you would excuse me, I’m going to put everything down and play “mute commercial dubbing” with my kids.

The training method that pro runners use

“80/20 Running: Run stronger and race faster by training slower” by Matt Fitzgerald

Over the years, running has become my obsession and I’ve managed to read several books on the subject including Build Your Running Body, few books by RunnersWorld, and a brilliant one by the legendary Hal Higdon. But nothing so far have come close to be as practical as this book.

The first few chapters of the book trace back the various training methods throughout history by enigmatic characters, from Emil Zátopek and Paavo Nurmi, to Arthur Lydiard whom first developed the 80/20 philosophy through 9 years of trial and errors since the late 1940s (and proceeded to became a legendary coach with marathon and Olympic winner disciples), to Stephen Seiler whom codified and scientifically verified the 80/20 method, with several brilliant sports scientists and accomplished athletes in between, including the Kenyans in the early 1960s.

It is fascinating to read about the battle between 2 school of thoughts throughout this timespan: the low-intensity high-volume training vs the speed-based training, in which low-intensity high-volume – which became the basis of 80/20 method – evolved over time to be the method of choice by professional athletes in all endurance sports.

So what is the 80/20 method? The logic is pretty simple: the most crucial key factor to long run (and any endurance sport) is stamina, and we build our stamina through as much training as possible (thus, high volume training). However, higher training volume can expose us to higher risk of injury, and that’s where low intensity training comes into play, to minimise or avoid injuries while we clock in longer training hours. Hence, the 80% effort at low intensity and 20% effort at moderate intensity.

The book then proceeded to make the case for the 80/20 method, presenting the scientific backgrounds for every function and the athletic results that show how the method improves our fitness and skill. It then gets very technical in around halfway through, which, for a running geek such as myself whom loves to dwell into the science, brings out the inner Japanese-schoolgirl in me.

Chapter 7 is the absolute gem of the book, with all the training techniques get to be well-defined and then given the proper example that we can implement instantly, complete with all the heart rate zone analyses. For example, the book lay out the no brainer facts that recovery run is done at zone 1, tempo run is at zone 3, while hill repetition run at zone 5. Although they are seemingly basic, nobody ever mentioned this in the pile of books and hundreds of running articles that I’ve read so far, and it gives me some kind of proper measure to can finally do them right.

The definitions also serve as an explanation of several mix matches that often occur between the techniques, such as what’s the difference between an interval run (zone 3 runs separated by zone 1 recoveries) and speed play (zone 2 runs separated by short bursts of zone 4-5). Moreover, the book does a good job on taking anyone step by step from virtually zero to a progressive journey into a 5K runner (chapter 8), 10K runner (chapter 9), half marathon runner (chapter 10), and full marathon runner (chapter 11), while also discussing at length on the importance of cross training (chapter 12).

All in all, the 80/20 method to the Maffetone method is like Stoicism to philosophy, it is the practical version of slow running method that provides us with the specific tools to properly implement and quantify it. And thus, after finishing the book I can’t help but imagining myself as Margaret Thatcher in that famous cabinet meeting, where she slams down the book Road to Serfdom onto the table and declare “this is what we believe now!”

The big picture on Myanmar’s struggle

“Freedom From Fear” by Aung San Suu Kyi

I bought this book a while ago but never had the priority to read it, then I lost faith in Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017 due to the way she handled the Rohingya crisis, but then 1 February 2021 coup happened. Something doesn’t add up here but I don’t know what, and thus I thought perhaps it’s time to properly read her story, through her own words.

To my surprise, however, unlike most semi-autobiographies the book is not all about her. Instead, it is a thorough history of Burma from the colonial times, to independence, until the current affairs issues as at the time of writing in 1995 (Note that she refers the country as Burma the whole time in the book. While the endonym Burma was derived from the largest ethnic group in the country, the Bama people, the name change to Myanmar – which is politically more correct as it includes the ethnic minorities – was changed in 1989 not long after the military takeover. Hence, the forever association of the name change to military rule).

The first few chapters of the book serve as an excellent introduction to the country Suu Kyi descriptively love and adore, where chapter 2 can easily mistaken for a page from Lonely Planet guide book on Myanmar. Chapter 3-4 cover the story of the struggle for independence and the intellectual elites of historic Burma, while right at the very beginning of the book in chapter 1 Suu Kyi wrote about her national hero father Aung San, whom died when she was just 2 years old and whom never get to see his country’s independence.

The book then proceeded with part 2, with short chapters 5-23 that serve as the core arguments from and for Suu Kyi, some that she wrote herself, few letters to international organizations, several media articles, some transcript to speeches, while there also quite few articles or speeches made by others in honor or on behalf of her. The topics include the psyche of the nation, the social structure of Burma, the political landscape of the country, its dark past present and future, and of course the many arguments for democracy.

Part 3 of the book consist of testimonials on Suu Kyi by several people who knows her personally, and hence gives us the flavour of her real character, which all in all the 3 parts of the book can give us a pretty broad idea about the state of the country and Aung San Suu Kyi as its non-violent “Burmese Gandhi”.

But the future doesn’t look too bright, unfortunately. Here we are 26 years later since the book was written, and most of the names mentioned in the book are still pretty much active in power, or to be more precise, re-surfaced after the coup. And if there is still no real resistance forces from the people (a factor made clear in part 1 of the book as a result of the British colonial ruler), or the lack of leadership in a shape of militant underground like in most struggling countries, there seems to be limited options for the Burmese than to just be submissive to the authoritarian regime once again. But that’s a big if.

Because, while I do not in any way support violence, sometimes it seems that non-violence approach is not working if your opposition is unlike the F. W. de Klerk to Nelson Mandela. Now, for 10 years since 2011 the junta tried to be like Mubarak or Suharto, both of whom “step down” but with backdoor deals that secure their own asses. But as the 2021 coup unfolds, it becomes apparent that the regime could only eventually back down in a Gaddafi way, which, if things remains the same as in the book, is unlikely to happen anytime soon, even 26 years later.

The most exciting book about marketing

“Perennial seller: The art of making and marketing work that lasts” by Ryan Holiday

This is a case for taking it slower and doing it right. To ignore the noise and instead focus on the mastery of our craft. To bidding our time and produce our creative outlet until it is so perfected that it last a long time.

This is also a case of the grueling reality of the producing process and how to handle it properly, and the excitingly bizarre ideas to promote our creations in catchy and effective ways.

And ultimately, this is a case of establishing our platform, developing our network, or in short, building our “1000 true followers.” It’s the difference between building a company and an empire, between a one hit wonder and a perennial seller.

It is by far the most thorough and most exciting book about marketing that I’ve ever read. With the many diverse examples and case studies that are just spot on, which I expect nothing less from a Ryan Holiday book.

In fact, this is like the tell-all book where Ryan Holiday seemingly give away his success formula on his several expertises, from how to be a prolific writer, to how he enduringly handles the producing processes, and how he masterfully conducts the marketing aspects with so many fresh ideas.

In short, it’s a very creativity-provoking book, definitely one not to miss.

The future is going to be incredible

“The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future” by Kevin Kelly

This is a very exciting book to read, with all the possibilities of our future technology all laid out by Kevin Kelly, the co-founding editor of Wired magazine, whom sees the future with a glass half full approach.

While many smart people from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk have expressed their concerns over the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can overtake humans as the dominant force on Earth, Kelly argues that AI can actually help us become better at we do, whether it’s to become a better doctor, better pilots, better judges, even better teachers. Because the most crucial thing about thinking machines is that they will think differently,  just like AI will drive a car differently than our easily distracted minds or sees the mystery of the Dark Matter from completely different angles.

Moreover, Kelly then elaborates that “In the real world—even in the space of powerful minds—trade-offs rule. One mind cannot do all mindful things perfectly well. A particular species of mind will be better in certain dimensions, but at a cost of lesser abilities in other dimensions.” This limitation also applies in AI, thus would then prevent them to become our dark overlords.

For example, the AI that diagnose our illness will have completely different capabilities than the ones that guide a self-driving truck, the one that can evaluate our mortgages aren’t capable of safeguarding our houses, while the AI that can predict our weather pattern will have a different intelligence than the ones that can manufacture clothings.

Kelly then list 25 possible types of AI’s “new minds” that are superior than ours but would be very beneficial for us humans without the risk of overpowering us. And these variations are just so powerful, an absolute goldmine.

And that, in essence, is the bedrock argument of this book, which he then proceeded to discuss every possible technicalities in many areas of industries, covering every single future possibilities in every aspects of life, including the extend of the technology that could make the movie Minority Report a possibility, where the movie describe a not-so-distant future where surveillance are used to arrest criminals before they commit a crime.

The book also explains the progress that are already happening in the world, such as the technology and concept behind the likes of Uber, AirBnb, Spotify, Netflix, Kindle, Wikipedia, Tesla, WeChat, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, among many others, to Torrent, Second Life, Nest smart thermostat, wearables such as Apple Watch, Bell’s bodycam, until cloud services, Bitcoin, “Big Data”, and Virtual Reality.

All in all, the book state that this is just the beginning of the internet era, and that we need to create AIs that can think differently for specific tasks which would immensely help us in progressing as a society. And it has so far proven right, as the book was written in 2016 and today in 2021 a lot of what Kelly had said are already happening, for better and for worse.

Immensely enlightening book, easily becomes one of my top favourites, very highly recommended.

The engine of modern China

“Alibaba: The house that Jack Ma built” by Duncan Clark

I began to read this book after Jack Ma was reported missing, following the controversial cancellation of Ant Group’s massive IPO by the Chinese government just two days before the much-hyped D-day. After reading this book, I can really see why Jack Ma is such a crucial person in the development of modern China, and how the government have the importance to control the very imbedded Alibaba in Chinese society, for better and for worse. And chapter 12 provides a glimpse of why this could happen, with the 2015 disappearance of Guo Guangchang, as also told in the book, may or may not be a precedence.

But this book is of course not only about the Chinese business environment. And as the phrase goes, I came for one thing and stayed for another. So stay I did, as this book has a nice flow of writing on a topic that is so fascinating that makes it hard to put down.

At its core, the book is about the internet evolution in China and the companies that emerge from the new dawn of technology. While the narrative follows the fascinating story of Jack Ma and the eventual rise of Alibaba Group, the book also provide the background stories of Alibaba’s partners and competitors that set up the context and the complicated environment in which Alibaba operates.

Moreover, although the book has the usual rags-to-riches narrative for Jack Ma, it doesn’t focus that much on the “Chinese dreams” but more on the practical tools and tactics that Ma implement to earn the success, in which chapter 11 summarizes it neatly. And just like many excellent business biographies, this book also includes all the struggles, the boardroom wars, the money lost along the way, and the larger than life characters that put the human side of every top notch executives mentioned.

In short, this is an excellent book on one of the hottest and most crucial companies in the world, a book that gives almost like an insider expose on the business environment in China.

PS: Jack Ma eventually re-emerged in the media after “laying low”, and few weeks later Ant Group announce that they will revamp themselves into a financial holding company under the supervision of People’s Bank of China. And so, the story in the book continues.

The science behind human physiological limits

“Endure: Mind, body, and the curiously elastic limits of human performance” by Alex Hutchingson

You know that Breaking2 project with marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge and co attempting to run a full marathon below a 2 hour mark?

This book is largely about the science behind the project, and the multiple back stories of each one of the scientific functions that measure endurance in human physiology, from brain-muscle connection, oxygen, altitude, heat, hydration, to psychology and much more.

The book isn’t just about breaking2 or about running, however, but instead it ranges from various case studies in different sporting disciplines, with all analyses ultimately ask 1 important question: what is the limit of the human body?

Endure is such a fascinating book, one that gets a stamp of approval from none other than running-enthusiast Malcolm Gladwell.

Inside the mind of one of basketball’s all time greats

“The Mamba Mentality” by Kobe Bryant

This book is the inner workings of what makes Kobe Bryant a legend. It is his fundamental philosophy, his attitude and mentality, the calculated actions that he take, and ultimately the book is about how he reads the game of basketball and massively prepare for them.

It gets very technical after around the mid point, after well-defining the Mamba Mentality in the first half of the book, which could be the most invaluable piece of information to learn from if you’re an aspiring basketball player or even just a fan of the sport.

Oftentimes, the book shed a light into how Kobe conducted the research into different types of teams and individual opponents, the tactics and mind games he employ to face them, and the practice to perfect them, all of which goes nearly unnoticed when we watch it in the game (with all the analyses clearly show a making of a maestro).

Indeed, basketball matches are pretty much a tactical battlefield for the professionals, and this book is like a memoir by a retired military general reminiscing about his war stories and the successful strategies he implemented, or like Sun Tzu laying out his Art of War for the younger generation of warriors to learn from.

Have I said invaluable? Know what you stand for and what you’re fighting for, establish solid fundamentals, train so damn hard and focus on the process, and know your enemy and every single detail about them. That’s the Mamba Mentality.