China, High Tech, Convenience and Privacy Concern

I was poring through the Youtube channel of Bloomberg, which features quite a few informative videos and this one was particularly interesting to me:

The video talks about a world of tech alternatives to what we are all familiar with: Facebook, Amazon, Youtube… Name one famous tech household name and there is a Chinese counterpart. Also, it shows a little bit of how QR codes and by extension, mobile payments are popular in the country. However, what is most interesting to me is the extent to which surveillance takes place in the world. In the video, a Western guy told a story of how his WeChat account’s money got deducted 20 seconds after he jaywalked in Shenzhen. That’s disturbingly fast. Plus, the government knows everything you do and ranks you based on your social behavior.

I have been of an opinion that an authoritarian leadership in China is a significant factor in its fast ascendency economically and politically in the world stage. Decisions are quickly made and there is singular focus as well as continuity due to the fact that there is one ruling party and for the foreseeable future, one ruler (aka Xi Jinping). On the other hand, decisions and policies take ages in the US and the pattern is, as I observe, that one president will undo all the work of the his predecessor, if the predecessor comes from the opposing party. The same may also be said to the ruling party in Congress.

On the other hand, it can be argued that privacy violations in the Western world are nowhere near as severe as they are in China. The NSA may have the same capabilities as the Chinese government in terms of surveillance, but we haven’t, thankfully, seen it do what the Chinese government is doing. Plus, the society we are living in allows us to practice freedom of speech more than the one in China. In the US, you can make fun of anyone in the government and Congress, though I don’t think you should do so in China.

If you think about it, we have speed of decision-making process due to one ruling party vs the lack of freedom, or convenience vs human right violations at the extremes. You can have one extreme at the expense of the other, but you can’t have both. It’s like the dilemma: does the means or the end matter more?

What works for this country will not likely work for another. I don’t know which one is inherently superior. I think it is just down to personal preference and perspective. Personally, I value freedom more.

Criminal Justice Reform as The Main Issue for a Presidential run

I was very disturbed by the sentence imposed on Paul Manafort. 7 years in total for all the crimes he committed, even though the guidelines indicate that the sentence could be lengthened for another 10 years. I am not implying anything beyond the sentence for Manafort. Regardless of your political view, just put that aside and think about what he did to enrich himself at the expense of the country and what the law stands for. Would you still think the sentence was justified? Especially when there is no lack of cases when folks got longer sentences for “crimes” far less?

Or this case: https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/30/us/detroit-man-wrongfully-excused-of-murder-released-trnd/index.html. You probably will find more examples on the failures of America’s criminal justice systems, but you should get my point. There are so many, especially the poor and the under-privileged, that have to suffer from the inadequacy of the criminal justice system.

I strongly believe that we only live once. The limited years we have on this year are so precious that reading about folks spending years behind bars for trivial crimes or even crimes they didn’t commit really bugs me.

I am not a policy person or a politician. I don’t have an answer or a policy outlined in details, but to be frank, it’s not my job. The folks in Washington DC have the experience and an army of aides with relevant knowledge and experience to do the job. I would love to see criminal justice reforms as the central issue for the 2020 race. I hope that next year, a candidate, regardless of political parties, will run on this issue and one day no one will have to waste their lives unjustly. I hope that a candidate will actually put the interests of the whole country above all else. Even if the person doesn’t succeed, running on criminal justice reforms will bring so much more attention and conversation to the issue and who knows what that would be able to do later on?

I have written about my fondness of the show Madam Secretary before, but in this clip, the Secretary decided against the appeal of popular like jobs and her advisor’s recommendation so that she would run on criminal justice reforms. Let’s make it true America. Please.

Exceptionalism vs Humanity/Common Sense

America is perhaps the poster boy country for exceptionalism. After 2.5 years here, I have come to realization that exceptionalism is revered around here and by-product of the optimism and entrepreneurship that have become the hallmarks of the American dream. Unfortunately, exceptionalism is pursued and achieved in some cases at the expense of humanity/common sense.

Take the article on Elon Musk and Tesla today on Bloomberg as an example. The article revealed the length Elon and Tesla went to to ruin the life of a whistleblower. I highly recommend you to read the article. Below are the pieces that disturbed me:

The leaker, they determined, was one Martin Tripp, a slight man of 40 who’d spent his career in a series of low-level manufacturing jobs before finding his way to the assembly line at the Gigafactory. Tripp later claimed to be an idealist trying to get Tesla to tighten its operations; Musk saw him as a dangerous foe who engaged in “extensive and damaging sabotage,” as he wrote in a staff memo. He implied that Tripp had shared the data not only with the press but also with “unknown third parties.”

On June 20, the company sued Tripp for $167 million. Later that day, Tripp heard from the sheriff’s department in Storey County, Nev. Tesla’s security department had passed a tip to police. An anonymous caller had contacted the company to say Tripp was planning a mass shooting at the Gigafactory.


When the police confronted Tripp that evening, he was unarmed and in tears. He said he was terrified of Musk and suggested the billionaire might have called in the tip himself. A sheriff’s deputy attempted to cheer up Tripp and then called Tesla to tell the company that the threat, whoever had made it, was bogus. Tripp wasn’t dangerous.

Musk’s treatment of Tripp threatens to complicate this legal and regulatory mess. The security manager at the Gigafactory, an ex-military guy with a high-and-tight haircut named Sean Gouthro, has filed a whistleblower report with the SEC. Gouthro says Tesla’s security operation behaved unethically in its zeal to nail the leaker. Investigators, he claims, hacked into Tripp’s phone, had him followed, and misled police about the surveillance. Gouthro says that Tripp didn’t sabotage Tesla or hack anything and that Musk knew this and sought to damage his reputation by spreading misinformation.

The following day, news of the lawsuit hit the internet. Tripp Googled himself and saw a story titled, “Martin Tripp: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know,” which said he lived in a rental apartment in nearby Sparks, Nev. Panicked about who might come find him, he sent an email to Musk. “You have what’s coming to you for the lies you have told to the public and investors,” he wrote.

His former boss, of course, engaged him with gusto. “Threatening me only makes it worse for you,” Musk replied. Later, he wrote: “You should be ashamed of yourself for framing other people. You’re a horrible human being.”

“I NEVER ‘framed’ anyone else or even insinuated anyone else as being involved in my production of documents of your MILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF WASTE, Safety concerns, lying to investors/the WORLD,” Tripp responded. “Putting cars on the road with safety issues is being a horrible human being!”

No one can question Elon’s greatness. I myself read a book on him and had a lot of respect for the guy, but what was described above was really difficult to read. No matter how great you are, that’s not how you should treat a person who has nowhere near the power or resources you have.

I read the Bad Blood book, which chronicled the scam of Theranos. It’s mind-blowing to read about how such a deceptive scheme transpired, how many people got hurt along the way as a select few individuals sought exceptionalism and how such individuals, like Musk, went out of the ways to ruin the lives of others who stood up to them.

There is also no lack of documented materials on how millions of dollars in savings vaporized through the Internet bubble and the 2008 economic crisis because exceptionalism was pursued in spite of common sense.

I am pretty sure I am and will be nobody in this world. But at the end of my days, I will still be proud of myself for not screwing anybody over to get what I want. To me, compassion, common sense and humanity matter more than exceptionalism.

Happy International Women Day

I am still into the belief that we do not need a special day a year to treat each other well, men or women. But if we take it for granted all the time and need a reminder, well so be it.

To celebrate International Women Day, I’d like to repost an entry I wrote on Mrs B, a brilliant woman who founded Nebraska Furniture Mart, worked till she was 103 and exemplified talent, honesty and integrity.

In 1983, at the age of 89 and after putting in 70-hour workweeks for years, she sold 80% of her business to Warren Buffett in a hand-shake deal without any lawyers or auditors present. The decision to sell was to prevent domestic conflict among her children. She continued to work at Nebraska Furniture Mart till she was 95 when her family forced her into retirement. Three months after she was forced into retirement, she opened another store across the street called “Mrs B’s Clearance and Factory Outlet”. Two years later, it was profitable and the 3rdlargest carpet outlet in Omaha. Warren Buffett bought the company and merged it into Nebraska Furniture Mart. The family rift was repaired. Mrs B continued to work till she was 103. One year later, she passed away at 104.

Mrs B

Also, I came across this ads from Nike that is very powerful, yet proof that we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality


Special thanks to all the women. You make life way more interesting, better and happier than what I imagine it would be without you

Keep it simple. It’s OK to be boring

I used to have colorful chinos and pants in my wardrobe. Blue, pink, black, red, white and green, just to name a few on the top of my head. Yup, I was a tad too much back in the day. It is representative of the old me. Now, I make an effort to keep everything as simple as possible.

I order my coffee black. Every single time. In the largest size possible. To the point now that the local shop in Old Town of Omaha knows what I order when I walk through the door. I don’t like the headache of choosing from a menu or running out of coffee while I am working.

My professional outfit now consists of shirts in white and several shades of blue + jeans and a pair of khaki + brown shoes. Sometimes I put on a blue sweater as well. But the selection stops there. Definitely a much more boring wardrobe that what I used to gather.

I like to cook…only simple meals like this one below. Roasted sweet potatoes, broccoli and rice

If you look for easy recipes, try these. They work very well for me:

Honey Garlic Shrimps

One pan honey garlic chicken

Spaghetti and Kale

I don’t own a car. My workplace is literally one block from where I live. No parking. No car insurance. No time wasted on looking for a slot

I don’t have a 3 or 5 year plan any more. I hardly plan anything farther than 2 weeks ahead. I pretty much book last minute flights nowadays.

If you and I disagree on something, so be it. I don’t psycho-analyze it. It is what it is. We simply disagree. Not much emotion involved.

There is an argument to be made that simplicity brings about predictability and predictability is boring. I get it. But for me, keeping things simple is liberating. It saves me time and energy from making too many decisions. I am content with “as long as it works/I like it/it’s good enough” approach in many aspects of my life nowadays. Much less baggage. Much more freedom.

Stop using female janitors to clean male restrooms

It’s 2019, the second decade of the 21st century of mankind history and we are still using female janitors to clean male restrooms. It’s unbelievable. It’s well-known that in developing countries, the gender inequality is more extreme than it is in developed countries. In the two books by Khaled Hosseini I read and reviewed here and here, women in Afghanistan have no say in their future and marriage. In Vietnam, even though the awareness has somewhat improved, the gender inequality is still pretty rampant throughout the country.

But right here in the US, I am still shocked at how we still have female janitors clean male restrooms. I would feel super awkward and somewhat humiliated to do the cleaning in the bathroom of the opposite sex. Even as the one whose the bathroom is designed for, I still feel awkward doing my business whenever the cleaning session is under way. But I never see male janitors clean female restrooms. Ever.

There should be a federal law in the US that is taken up by all states that mandates that the bathroom gender be the same as the gender of the cleaning workers. Progress can be easily made here.

Public library’s browser extension and e-book borrowing

Reading is awesome, but it can be fairly expensive if you buy every book you want to read. This post is about one trick I found to borrow e-books from the public library in Omaha, Nebraska, saving me a lot of money, while maintaining this rewarding habit. I suspect that the same should be similar to public libraries across the US.

I am a big fan of the public library in Omaha. There are tons of books to borrow for free. The normal process is that you go to the library’s website, log in, type in the book of your choice, place a hold, if the book is available of course, and pick it up later at your chosen branch.

I can’t recall the exact moment, but some time last year, I added their browser extension to Chrome. The extension allows me to see the availability of books right on the website where I am visiting without navigating to the library’s website itself. It’s convenient and in some cases, saved me a few bucks from buying books that otherwise are free to borrow at the library.

How the extension looks on Amazon

On the right hand side of the screenshot is how the extension looks. Immediately, I know that there are 3 available hard-copies of the book at the library and no e-book or audiobook up for grabs at the moment. One click and it takes me to the library’s website.

It’s even more convenient if you can borrow the e-books, especially when the weather outside is nasty. The process is pretty simple. Simply go to the library’s website, look for the book and place a hold on the e-book. A couple of options will appear as follows:

The “read in browser” option is quite self-explanatory. If you pick the “pick a format to download” option, there are usually Kindle or Adobe Epub format. As I own a Kindle, I go with the former. Once the option is picked, the window will appear like this:

Click on “Download Kindle” and you will be redirected to Amazon website:

Click on “Get Library Book”, open your Kindle, turn on Wifi-connection and you’ll get access to the book. To return the borrowed books, it has to be done in Amazon, according to Amazon website:

If you can support authors and pay for every book, by all means. If you read a lot and want to save money, public libraries can be a tremendous help. Don’t feel bad about free reading. Part of our taxes goes to the management and maintenance of public libraries. If you are not able to increase your income to build your net worth, it’s easier to lower expenses. This is one of the tricks I knew to limit the damages to my bank account while still enriching my knowledge and soul.

Finnish education

I was lucky enough to live and study in Finland for a while. It is and will always be my “second home”, even now that I have already lived in Canada and America as well. It is where I forged relationships that have been instrumental in my life ever since and where I grew up significantly as a person.

Finland isn’t a country rich in natural resources. Its population is just 5.5 million people. Yet, it’s one of the most advanced and happiest countries in the world. A key reason is its world-class education. There is no shortage of coverage on the greatness of Finnish education, so I am just going to tell you a few personal stories I had while living there.

In our Bachelor’s program, there was one math course. We Vietnamese grow up learning complex math problems so the kind of math we had in that course was pretty easy. My classmates struggled at first. Yet, I saw first hand that they spent only 2-3 hours a day after class on math problems and achieved progress that I knew myself I wouldn’t have had. It’s incredible and a bit shameful for me to witness. I had years of a head start, but deep down I knew that without it, I wouldn’t have been able to grow as much in a short amount of time as my Finnish friends.

The first ever class in our program was with our Dean in an auditorium of 80 students. We often had debates and presentations. Most Vietnamese students were very shy and quiet, yet my Finnish peers were confident, persuasive and critical, to the point that the Dean, who is a Swedish American, said this about one guy: “he is terrifyingly persuasive”. The same ability to communicate with confidence and substance was consistent throughout the time I was there, either in or outside of the classroom.

One time, I was sitting next to a guy in class. He was gluing his eyes to a book. I asked him what he was reading and his response was “An Arabic dictionary”. It turned out the guy could speak 6-7 languages already and was trying to learn a new one. In addition to that guy, I was friends with another guy who could speak 7 languages and play piano well. In Finland, the official languages are Swedish and Finnish. English is so popular that many Finns speak the language like native speakers. Plus, a lot of Finns learn a language or two in high school and spend time abroad. So it’s very common to meet Finns who can speak multiple languages.

Moreover, Finns are very modest. They tend to display a healthy level of shyness and play down their abilities. I rarely detected a sense of ostentation from my Finnish friends or folks I met over there. If you meet a Finn salesman to ask about a service or product, don’t be surprised to hear something along the line of “it works!”. In my experience, Finns are like that. Down-to-earth, direct, modest, honest and genuine.

I came across a clip that explained quite well the modesty and why Finnish education is so good. Have a listen.

The system needs to be improved and we need to be better

I came across some disturbing facts today. According to the USAToday, below are a few ramifications from the most recent shutdown:

Almost a quarter reduced or eliminated spending on health or medical expenses for themselves or their family

One in four visited a food bank

Forty-two percent took on new debt to pay for day-to-day expenses and bills. Two in five turned to family or friends, while one in five borrowed from a bank or credit union

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released the following:

Auto loan and student debts reach 1.265 and 1.442 trillion dollars respectively. Trillion with a T and one trillion is a thousand billion. Astonishing numbers. Clearly, something is horribly wrong right now when many Americans are living paycheck by paycheck and saddled with debt for things that are supposed to make their life better, namely education and cars. That’s not to mention mortgage or healthcare in emergency cases yet, but you should get the picture.

The facts above mean that many Americans will have little to almost no safety net. If a paycheck stops coming, all hells break loose. Debt payments wait for no one. Food must be put on the table. Utilities bills must be paid. Consequently, all the best years of our lives, theoretically, namely our 20s and 30s, are dedicated to just work and pay our debt. I mean, if we have to spend hours to just survive with little freedom, how is it different from modern slavery? How sad is it that we can’t afford to take time off to enjoy life because of the debt over our head? Or how frustrating is it to not have the freedom to choose and do what we want for the same reason?

I am no policy expert and I understand that it’s complicated to fix any of those issues. But there are things that we can definitely do, in my opinion, on an individual level because I totally believe that some efforts and adjusting our lifestyle can steer us away from a giant amount of debt.

Avoiding a high tuition tab

I met a few guys at UNO who dropped classes after already committing tuition fees for those classes’ credits. Two people in particular considered dropping out after two years into their degrees at the time. Understandably, there are some cases in which we all consider changing majors and hence, future career paths, but such cases are not the majority. Dropping out of classes is just an irresponsible use of money and time. Hence, finishing out classes and degrees will help us avoid getting more debt

I came to the US in 2016 with a graduate assistantship at school. In exchange for 20 hours working at school, I had all tuition fees and around 70% of my insurance waived. At University of Nebraska at Omaha, it meant around $7000 a semester, including summer courses. In total, I saved $49,000 of tuition fees after 7 semesters at school, let alone the insurance subsidy on top of that. If you don’t have a better alternative (a paying job), such a position can mean a lot of money saved and debt avoided.

Lower your textbook expense

High textbook prices are ridiculous in the US and Canada. Brand new textbooks which are usually required by professors for 4-5 courses a semester can amount up to $1,000. Being smart about how to spend on books can lead to significant savings. I wrote about two ways to save on book expense.

Take advantage of disruptions in education

Recent developments in the industry bring about more opportunities for affordable education for students. I wrote a bit about Lambda here. Basically, Lambda allows students to have intensive courses in IT with no down payment in advance. Upon graduation and after securing a job paying more than $50,000/year, students will pay back 17% of monthly salary for two years. The cap is $30,000 and if for some reasons, you get fired, no payment is required until you are employed again.

George Tech offers a $7,000 Master degree in Computer Science while WSJ reported the rising popularity of free college programs in certain states. If possible, take advantage of these affordable options. In fact, if you are an American or a permanent resident, you are luckier than immigrants like I am. The option above from Lambda is only available now to US Citizens or US Permanent Residents or EU Citizens. The rest has to make a down payment of $20,000.

Hold off on that new car

I traveled to Philadelphia last summer. A friend there told me about her roommate getting an auto loan for a new car on top of her 6-figure student debt. While I don’t think the story is typical of every student, it’s not an outlier either. It just doesn’t make sense to get a loan on something that doesn’t create value and instead diminishes in value over time. If a guy like Warren Buffett can live well and happily with an old car, I think broke students or graduates should be fine with driving used cars.

Study personal finance

It’s a pity that we don’t get to learn much about personal finance at school. I personally believe that it’s one of the most important things we should get out of college. Nonetheless, it will be immensely helpful to learn it in your free time and apply it to our life. A lot of our financial trouble comes from the lack of knowledge on personal finance and financial planning.

Humans of New York and Brandon Stanton

I am a big fan of Humans of New York. There are so many great stories told in just ordinary yet moving languages. Whenever I run into those stories, they just create beautiful moments in my days and lift the spirit a little bit. In the time when racism, lack of compassion and cynicism are dangerously present as our time now, stories like the one below offers a pure and beautiful break

Source: Humans of New York

I also recommend the interview between Tim Ferriss and the founder of Humans of New York. It’s an engaging and incredible interview shedding light on his story and the struggle he went through to have his photo project take off