The Geometry of Wealth by Brian Portnoy – Book Review

Was I reading the right book?

When you have a “How to” in the title of your book, one expects that it is a more of a practical guide to whatever you are ‘HowTo’ing. And it is that expectation that led me to explore this book. The book is almost a year old but there only were a handful of reviews on Amazon. Also, 91% of them were 5-stars. But more of that later.

You will be sorely disappointed if you also expect this to be a self-help or an investing guide as its title unbashedly markets the book. This is more of a long-winded and tangential exploration of how wealth can affect happiness and human behaviour. I still gave the book a honest chance to understand the arguments the author was making.

The author starts off by dividing the book into three parts – each a logical step in planning and building wealth. Once this clear and useful definition is set up, the author goes on a detour. Somewhere in the woods for finding happiness, he takes us on a wild goose chase before coming back to the point he was earlier making. At one point in time, I had to go back to GoodReads to figure out whether I was reading the right book or whether there was a glitch in the Amazon system that got me the wrong book.

Leaning heavily on other behavioural finance references, notably Kahneman, the author explains how he melded works from different authors and derived his own understanding of the effect of money on happiness. As one of the other reviews of this book on goodreads says, any one who is remotely interested in behavioural psychology/finance would have read about Kahneman, Tversky or Thaler. Knowing that this book doesn’t bring any thing new to the table, it would indeed be redundant to read this, especially with the side quests that the author often participates in.

When the book takes almost half of the content to come to the point, I feel I would be doing the right thing in skimming the book instead of reading it thoroughly. And if you’re really interested in completing the book, that is what I would recommend. Otherwise, the psychology of building wealth can be better understood through other well known works.

Here’s my take on how happiness is linked with wealth. Yes, wealth can bring a certain level of happiness. But as is with any other thing in life, the marginal utility of wealth decreases as we have more and more of it. It should not be used as an end to itself, but as a means to achieving your true purpose in life, whatever you define that to be. Money may or may not directly give you happiness. But one thing I know for sure is that this book did not give me happiness at all. The proof of the geometry of wealth stays unsolved for me

The Big Nine by Amy Webb – Book Review

I stumbled upon this book on Amazon when I saw it among the top books in Artificial Intelligence. I was exploring this topic for finding good coding books on the subject. I have always been interested in knowing more about AI ever since it got into prominence and increasing use in the past few years. I believe that Google is the organization that has contributed the most to the third wave of AI (as the author mentions in the book). This wave may persist unlike its predecessors, which fizzled out due to a lack of meaningful output. Today we are seeing many practical and useful examples where AI is being used. Self-driving cars, personal assistants are just two examples that are most visible or talked about. But AI has the power to pervade much deeply into our every day lives. Without us knowing it, we have unconsciously become both the trainers and the users of these ground-breaking technologies. Don’t believe me? Think of the various ways that you have contributed to Google and other companies using the data provided by you for improving their AI offerings. Captcha, social media hashtags, Google Photos image recognition, are all examples where our data is being used for training their AI algorithms in the hope of improving them so that they can classify us and target us even better in the future. And don’t even get me started on Facebook. The least ethical of the lot, Facebook has a lot to answer for. But as the author mentions, it has become a trend for all these nine companies to move ahead with their plans first and then apologise for any infractions on user privacy or security.

So AI has the potential to both improve our lives and help build a better future as well as to invade every aspect of our life and make us completely dependent on a select few global entities who will nudge our lives into paths they find the most profitable. And that is what is satisfying about this book. It explores both the extreme cases, where AI will become a true ally to our future selves or become a dictatorial entity guiding our every action.

According to the book there are only two countries that are leading the race as far  as AI is concerned – US and China. And it is no surprise. Both these countries also occupy the centre stage in world trade and diplomatic affairs. But what is scary is the different paths that both these countries have adopted in improving their AI. While the US has a capitalistic model to it, with each of the six big names in AI doing their research in private labs and using that to improve the top and bottom line, China has a more nationalistic goal in pursuing AI. In its quest to become the leader in trade and global politics, the CPC (Communist Party of China) has adopted the development of AI in its growth manifesto. Xi Jinping has left no stone un-turned in encouraging the three Chinese companies that lead the way in AI – Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. The BAT companies as the author puts it. The book explains how if left unchecked by the US, China can leap forward the rest of the world by becoming a leader in AI along with its other physical intrusions into the trade networks of smaller and weaker countries, notably through its grand Belt and Road Initiative.

Amy Webb touches upon a lot of humanistic issues in the book as well. As with any capitalistic corporate entity, it would be naive to expect them to look at the human side of business. But with AI it becomes all the more imperative because the kind of values that we put into these initial models will decide to a great extent the kind of path the AI supercomputers will follow in the future. Already there have been cases where AI algorithms have been biased in terms of gender or race due to the faulty data set that they were provided during their initial training phase. Hence in this inevitable move towards more powerful and faster computers, ensuring that these “intelligent creatures” do not become antagonistic to humanity becomes a valid point. And it has to be done now instead of later.

The Big Nine is a highly fascinating look at the development of AI in today’s world. The author explores in depth the American context but I would have liked more information about the path that the BAT companies are taking as well. But as is expected, digging deep into the opaque Chinese business environment would be much harder, due to the absence of user privacy or ethical laws there.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to understand what AI is, what has been its history, and where we are heading in the future. As with any rapidly evolving technology, it is near impossible to predict the exact path that the technology would follow. But the author does a very good job in exploring the three possibilities of where the world might be – with respect to Artificial Intelligence. And as the author mentions, it would be well for the world to find itself at the most optimistic and progressive scenario. However to reach there, the world needs to start preparing now.

Luckily there has been a lot of debate among business leaders as to whether AI is a benevolent technology or a maleficent one. There have been strong arguments on both sides as well. It is good that healthy debates have surfaced even if in brief spurts. This is the right time to build a framework around the regulation or atleast the structure and ethics of building powerful AI systems. The US government needs to play a major role in this. Postponing this for the future would be a big mistake, especially if the machines suddenly decide to become sentient one day. Worse still, if at that time John Connor is nowhere to be found.

Figuring by Maria Popova – Book Review

The author of this book, Maria Popova is a well known curator of the excellent website brainpickings.org. Brain pickings has an eclectic collection of articles, books and other writings from various disciplines. Each post introduces a work followed by the author’s unique take on the creative work. This site has provided me tons of recommendations for what next to read. And that is why I jumped into this book as soon as i saw it on my recommended list on goodreads. If nothing else this book would be a treasure of trove of new paths to explore in my reading journey.

The book opens with a bang. It starts with a never-ending sentence that is probably one of the longest that I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Tyco Brahe and Kepler. It brought back nostalgia of when I first read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and found out how these individuals were as big contributors to the field of astronomy to the more famous names such as Galileo. I had started reading this book even without finding out what the book was about. And I thought the first chapter was giving me an idea of what to expect.

But after reading a few chapters, I feel I may have abandon this book because I still don’t have a clear picture of what the author is trying to say. The book flutters around constantly and introduces a lot of characters at the cost of clarity and coherence.

However, a few chapters down, I lost interest in the material due to the constant flitting back and forth, especially when the author is referencing quotes by others or transitioning into a new character. “A century later”, “Exactly seventeen years later”, “Fifteen centuries ago,” etc. It seemed like the author was trying too hard to fit these disparate thoughts by different individuals into a single narrative. It seemed forced, in my opinion, more like a collection of essays glued into a single narrative.

Moreover the author has used a lot of flowery language at many places when something simple would have sufficed. The opening sentence(if you can call it that) is a case in point. When you quote a lot of writings by other authors in your work, and the language of the quote is simpler than your interpretation of it, there is something going wrong. It feels like the author is trying to make an impression but failing.

I very much wanted to like this book because of the incomparable work that the author has done in building and maintaining the quality of brain pickings. But sadly the same does not translate in this work by her. And this book figuring will stay un-figured for me for quite some time.

Where the Crawdads Sing – Book Review

Suspension of disbelief. When I became old enough to understand what this phrase meant, I used it as a worthy ally in my book reading journey. Simply put, what it means is that to truly enjoy a movie, a book or any other form of fiction, you need to ignore some of the more “impossible” plot points in the creative work to derive a sense of enjoyment from it. So it is very important to put aside your critical faculties and not keep on saying WTF every time you encounter something that your mind can’t bend around.

So like any other work of fiction, I had this in my backpack as I picked up “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Rave reviews by celebrities helped bolster the feeling that I was in good company with this book.

“I can’t even express how much I love this book! I didn’t want this story to end!”–Reese Witherspoon

The coming of age story in this debut novel by the author is of a young girl, Kya, who lives in a marshland in North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, and ignored by the town at large, she learns to live in isolation but in touch with nature. Gradually, she learns to make a living by fishing, and selling her catch to a friendly family (a trader named Jumpin’) in town. Having no reason to attend school, she cannot read or write. But gradually, she even learns to read with the help of a one-time friend of her elder brother.

Like any coming of age story, she falls in love but after a couple of heartbreaks, she vows to never get fooled in love again and starts to prefer the company of her less human friends than to suffer another rejection. With lots and lots of time on her hand, and no one to disturb her, she starts doing what any other person would do. Write. With her extensive first-hand knowledge of the marshland, she pens down a few manuscripts on the flora and fauna of the area. Within a few years, she becomes a best-selling author, all this without having to meet her agent or publisher, or attend any marketing events! Using the royalties from her book, she even manages to renovate her familial home and even buy out a considerable portion of the marshland!

Now the clincher of the story, what makes this a murder mystery is the mysterious death of one of the inhabitants of the town. Unfortunately, the detectives assigned to the case make a buffoonish mess of the whole case by relying on circumstantial evidence to implicate the marsh girl as the prime suspect. Kya is arrested and held in a prison cell for a couple of months without trial. I particularly liked the way the author projected her time of isolation in the prison cell as a continuation of her isolation in the marsh. The book then ends with a short trial of the marsh girl as she is defended by a famous attorney – a white knight who magically appears in the story.

Now, why did I not like the book? Well, all of these events by themselves are alright. But somehow the entire set of events do not gel into a believable plot. Moreover the development of some of the characters is lacking. It is evident that the protagonists, her love interests and her friends get a sufficient number of pages to be explored and presented. But the side characters are merely cardboard cutouts – the detectives, the mysterious attorney, etc. Even Jumpin’ and his family are partly hidden in the shadows. Except for an episode each devoted to Jumpin’ and his wife, they are left underdeveloped. It would have helped to introduce a back-story for Kya’s attorney (as to why he would be willing to defend her pro bono), or the resort project that causes Kya to walk-in to the town office and walk out with the deed for the marshland in her hands. Oh, and the poetry? I simply skipped those parts without a second thought.

The author has written non-fiction before, however this is her first stab at a novel. So she could be forgiven for the flaws in the book. But this then becomes any other story about growing up, facing heart-break and rejection and then overcoming the odds to some extent. I had picked up this book because of the glowing reviews online and had read that it was a murder mystery. But in essence the book feels more like a YA, romance genre. Read this if you’re interested in living in the woods or learning about the marshland life. Else you are better off leaving the marsh girl in peace. Both you and her will be better off this way.

In Defense of Food – Book Review

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This is in essence the entirety of the advice in the book. Ok, so should you skip the book and instead keep the above sentence in mind? No, because unless you have defined what food is, you would probably continue with your old eating habits. Therefore I fully sympathize with Michael Pollan when he says that it is surprising that he needs to defend or even define food. But it is not that simple. Here’s what I mean.

Imagine meeting your long lost friend from the past – someone who lives in the 19th century, or even the early 20th century. You take him to a supermarket and you ask him to “Buy some food.” Then imagine giving the same advice to someone who lives in the present. When both of them are done with their shopping, you would definitely realize that what food means to your present-day friend is way different than what it means to your historic friend from the past. Your long lost friend would have probably picked up fruits, vegetables, and some meat (if he could have recognized it in the slick packaging), while your present day friend would have probably picked up a few packets of Lays, his favourite soda and an assortment of candies. What the average person today thinks of food is way different than its traditional definition.

That is why reading the rest of the book is important. Today, there are more food-like substances gracing the shelves of our supermarkets than actual good old food. Every year thousands of new variations of old products are introduced, each bringing more extreme changes to the chemistry of the product. Today in America the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented—and dizzying. Each of these carefully engineered products are stuffed down the consumers’ throats through rampant marketing and advertising, much of it questionable or even unethical.

There are quite a few thought provoking arguments that the author has made in defense of food. Years ago what you ate was a function of your culture, or what your parents or grand-parents said was good. Lately, mom has been put to the sidelines. Over the last several decades, mom lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers. And just because the new coach is wearing a slick custom-fit suit or has a long list of educational qualifications, consumers are lapping up his advice. But unfortunately, in the long term the new coach’s advice is only harming the player.

The author argues that this new coach – the food marketers, and their game plan – the Western Diet, is one of the biggest culprit for the increased rate of disorders such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. The human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them.

The author even goes on to make a bold claim questioning the entire science of nutrition because it is a flawed science that knows much less than it cares to admit. The focus on individual nutrients and their importance is seen in isolation by these nutrition scientists with the result being that food has been de-constructued into its partial constituents and then repackaged in convenient boxes supposedly fortified again by their nutrients. But the author argues that these reconstituted food-like substances cannot give the same benefits as the original food that they were derived from. So, eating oranges (with all its fiber) may be healthier than gulping down packaged orange juice (which may be nothing other than sugar, artificial flavouring and preservatives). Another example the author gives is of milk where scientists have failed to replicate the entire spectrum of nutrients that milk as a natural liquid provided compared to baby formula.

The scary thing about the whole matter is that inspite of this happening in full view of the government, the government is actually toothless to keep a strict check on such practices. Take for example the famous food pyramid, the US government has failed to completely avoid the influence of powerful industries that influence the advice that it gives out to the citizens. The story of the food pyramid is something that has been explored in Sugar Salt Fat, which is yet another excellent read for finding out about the power that corporations wield today in order to push their products further and more aggressively. This makes it clear that it is in the individual’s best interest to make sure that he or she makes the right eating choices because neither the government nor the food companies are going to do it for them.

The second part of the book expands the author’s single sentence advice further. The great thing about Pollan’s approach is that he does not advice you to track your macro-nutrients to the last ounce, nor is it obsessed on counting calories. The advice simply follows the traditional advice that would be prevalent in many cultures across the world, the kind that is given by your grandmother (and that you’re more likely to ignore). Michael Pollan carefully defines what food is. And he does that using simple and memorable rules. For example, DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. This sentence is so simple that it almost seems obvious. Yet many people today would happily pickup something that comes in a colorful box, with its healthy benefits screaming from its packaging. Although the author doesn’t advice people to turn vegetarians, he does suggest that plants should be the major constituents of a healthy diet. Lastly, the adage of staying a little bit hungry at each meal is presented to help slow aging and prolong lifespan in animals.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The author gives out the essence of the book within the first few lines itself. Yet the entire book is an interesting read to understand how food has mutated into an attractive yet unhealthy mixture of carefully engineered chemicals . Food has become less food, more foodish. Only once you distinguish this unholy mass from good old fashioned food, it will be possible for you to start eating your way to health.

This was my second read of the book and I’ll probably keep coming back to it a few more times in the years ahead. This is a must read if you’re planning to start out a new diet or even if you simply want to be more conscious and aware of what you put on your plate today.

When by Daniel H Pink – Book Review

Before I started this book, I had kept reminding myself, “Suspend your disbelief.” The reason I did this was that I have been very cynical of behavioural/psychological/anthropological books that spout studies selectively and creates an artificial narrative. Specifically an example is the spate of books that attribute certain behaviours of the modern human to that of his ancestors when they roamed the savannah. I’ve said it before as well that my brain does not process kindly such attributions. And in keeping with the times, this book too has this attribution somewhere in its pages (economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution).

“When” starts off quite well. The author structures the book into three parts – The Beginning, the Middle and the End. Each part deals with a specific time of any project/activity/task and it discusses how that particular part fits into the bigger picture. The author quotes multitudes of studies to bring home the point.

Mercifully the book is not too long and rambling. And that is where the good things about the book end. Although the author mentions in the introduction that this book can be used as a practical guide, by the time I reach the end, I’m left wondering for what. Other than a Malcolm Gladwellish analysis of social, mental and psychological phenomena, I didn’t finding anything much to take away from this book. To put it even more plainly I couldn’t discern the purpose of the book.

There are a few commonsensical tips scattered in the book. If you’re a morning person do your heavy work in the mornings. If you’re an owl, do it later in the day. Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up to rehydrate yourself.

Interestingly the useful content of the book follows the much repeated peak, trough and recovery graph that the author introduces at the beginning. The chapter on Midpoints seemed much devoid of actual useful information mirroring the trough that people face somewhere during the midpoint of a project.

The author proposes many changes in the daily schedule for a person for him to take the maximum benefit of the “when” concept. However, a typical working professional is highly constrained by the office timings and rules for him to gain any significant benefit out of these. A twenty minutes mid-day nap? Good luck convincing your boss to implement this idea.

Some of the most supposedly most actionable parts were the Time Hacker’s Handbook chapters. I assume this was the practical steps part that the author talk about. But in the end, these seem like simple (and repeated) life hacks. The Zeigarnik effect has been discussed in much detail in other books that I have read. Atul Gawande has better explained the importance of checklists in his excellent book. Yes, the Seinfeld chain recommendation is well known to most familiar with the self-help genre.

Getting the timing right in any aspect of life is quite important, and quite difficult. If done right, any material on this can definitely help improve the quality of one’s life. But as far as this book goes, I would not recommend this book more than a quick and light read, compiling many of the experiments done earlier as well as a miscellaneous collection of productive tips.

Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.—MILES DAVIS

Thankfully this book didn’t take much of my time.

New Erotica for Feminists Book Review

The title of the book itself screams that this book is not going to be like any other book published before. Erotica? We got millions of books on that. Feminism? Yes that is a hot and burning topic today. But erotica for feminists? Librarians are going to have a hard time deciding which shelf this book goes on. At first the witty title piques my curiosity but then the blurb takes over,

He calls me into his office and closes the door . . . to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.

When you’re chuckling even before you open a book, that book surely deserves a read. And this book did deserve the same.

I picked this book up for a lighter read while I attempt to plow through a mammoth book that I have taken up as my first 2019 read. That other book is Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer prize winning history of oil, The Prize. It is such a detailed and lengthy book that I have to take regular breaks in order to keep my sanity. The scope of the book and the number of characters, if not protagonists, is overwhelming. But I’ll complete it in a few weeks.

So back to the topic of erotica. The last I remember reading erotica is a teenager, with raging hormones and an utter need to pick up anything related to sex. Much water has flown under the bridge since then. The hormones have mellowed and the genre is no longer a surreptitious pleasure for me anymore. But the reason I picked up this book is that it belongs to a newly invented genre. As they say, invention is simply taking existing things and combining them in different ways to create something new. Take erotica, of which there is enough literature (most of it bad), take feminism, which is quite relevant in today’s times, and combine the two, and poof. You have a brand new genre that is completely unique and if tackled correctly, can be quite enjoyable and instructive as well.

Four authors have attempted the same in this book. The founders of the comedy/satire website, Belladonna  are the authors of this quirky book. The idea came out of a series of group chats that the authors developed and structured into a book. The authors were particularly frustrated by the lack of reach of feminism in many spheres of life even today. The outcome is a series of short montages of erotica that completely overturn the story and its ending. It’s like having an M Night Shyamalan twist in every montage.

I was initially confused as I was expecting a few stories that ran across pages. Instead when each page started with a new setting, I was left turning pages back and forth at first. A few episodes down the line I realized (and appreciated) that the goal of the authors was to cover many situations as possible, and so crisp and terse montages were the way to go. And they do work. Just when the reader expects a certain punchline or the mini-plot to go one way, the feminist twist to the story takes it off to an unexpected direction. I would not be honest if I said that I could predict the punch-line in every story. A part of me was disappointed by the sudden break in the sensuous build-up, but a part of me smiled as well. Yes, women do face discrimination in this world, and this book showcases that in a subtle, yet thoughtful manner.

I never thought that one day I would analyze erotica (and it is difficult to call this erotica, because nothing erotic happens in the end). But nevertheless this book is a fresh and unique way to tackle a sensitive subject. It is designed to bring out the “oh, I didn’t know men did that”, and I’m sure there will be certain montages where the male readers of this book may realize that, “hmm, maybe this is how it feels”. If this book evokes such realizations from the reading public, I’m sure it will have achieved its purpose to a very large extent. The authors pretty much say the same thing at the end of the book,

“We just used an entire book of comedy to point out some ways in which women are expected to lived up to society’s impossible and often conflicting standards.”

Satire is meant to bring out the inadequacies, the flaws, of a certain topic without making it into a rant. If done correctly, it is a brilliant tool and an enduring one. If not, it falls flat on its face and loses its purpose. This book uses satire to take on a very important concept of gender equality and does a pretty good job of it. Pick this book up if you’re curious about how women face sexism in day to day situations, and how they wish the world would instead behave.

Atomic Habits by James Clear – Book Review

Sometimes, but rarely, in your book reading journey comes a book that impacts you so much, that you can’t wait to end the book just so that you can write a review of the book. At times the book is so brilliant that you want to praise it profusely, or sometimes it is so horribly bad that you want to get done with it and close the chapter forever, and leave a scathing review for wasting your time. This book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, is clearly one of the former.

Although this is by no means the first book written on the psychology or science of habits, I have a feeling that it will become a very important one in the future. I’ll come to why. But first let me talk about the first book that was actually written, or at least the first book that broke down habits, and how they can be made or unmade, widely known to the general public. It was the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I have read that book a couple of years back and while it was a groundbreaking book, it didn’t do much for me. Somehow I felt I didn’t connect with the book. For some reason I felt that The Power of Habit belonged more in the Psychology/Reference section instead of Self-Help.

That is why I loved Atomic Habits. For someone looking to get an idea of why they have certain habits or how they can change their habits, this book would be a much more effective recommendation. Because it explains the science as well as sets out clear, concise and actionable steps to achieve the change that you’re looking for. The book had so many aahaa moments that I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone around me. Frankly speaking, it took me my entire willpower to stop a stranger on the street and exhort him to read this book ASAP. Well maybe, that is what I am doing just now, not on the street but on the Internet!

From one of the author’s own interviews, this is what a reader had to say about the book. “[Atomic Habits] seems a LOT more practical and focused on guiding people on how to actually make changes. Power of Habit is more journalistic, though it does have the appendix at the back that talks about how to implement habit changes.”

According to the author, there are four laws that can be used to create good habits or to break bad ones. The book follows the same structure. It starts with talking about the importance of making small changes in your routine to improve yourself. There is a well repeated statistic on how a 1% improvement every day can bring compounded changes over a long period of time. It then introduces the habit feedback loop where each habit follows the cue -> craving -> response -> reward cycle.

Each law focuses on one of these four aspects. The crux of the book is that a habit can be changed by targeting one (or more) of these steps. The beauty of the book (and the feedback loop) is that this concept itself is complete. If you can understand this concept thoroughly, you’ve read enough of the book. You don’t need to read further. But of course I would still recommend you to completely read the book. Because it is that good. There are many sections that will resonate with you, especially if you have tried earlier to create habits and have struggled to follow through on them. The language used by the author is clear, practical, and not exceedingly anecdotal.

By the time I reached the 2nd law, I was ready to start habit stacking, temptation bundling and all the other cool-sounding (and effective) keywords that are used to describe a particular strategy. I feel sheepish to say that for the longest time that this book felt like a template self-help genre book that was high on fluff and low on content. This was my perception before having opened the book and even reading a single page of it. In fact I actively avoided reading it for as long as I could. But given the time of the year, when new year resolutions are being prepared, this felt like a suitable read. And boy am I glad I picked this book up. I’m pretty sure that by using the concepts in this book you can create resolutions that you can stick to till the end of the year, instead of seeing them evaporate by mid March.

I can’t wait to finish this book, and then go through all my highlights and notes to prepare a one pager. A cheat sheet if you will (Update: What do you know? There’s a cheat sheet already available at the end of the book!) This is a book that I will be rereading multiple times. Atomic HABITS is in my books, a clear winner and an addiction killer. Go read it before you create your new year resolutions for 2019.

Update: I did finish this book well in time for the new year and am ready to make my habit checklist. At the end of the book, there is a section that I found really strange. The author has given a few additional tips and techniques for people further wishing to explore the subject of effective habit creation. These tips, although useful and interesting, feel disjointed and feel out of place in this excellent book. Nevertheless you can choose to read it or ignore. Either way it won’t hurt you.

Star rating – 5/5
What next can you read – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Nudge by Richard Thaler.

Never Grow Up by Jackie Chan – Book Review

What can you say about Jackie Chan? He’s not only a great martial artist and a movie maker, but also a very good human being. You just can’t not love the man and his antics on screen. A veteran of over 200 movies with an equally impressive number of broken bones in his body, Jackie Chan has transcended language, political and cultural barriers to become one of the most recognised movie stars in the world today. In his own words, he is well known in the remote jungles of Africa as well as isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean (Vanuatu).

But I have a very strong feeling that not much would be known of the man outside the movie. One thing is well known, that he has been injured a lot, judging from the bloopers that he places at the end of his every movie. Some of this injuries have been life threatening. So it is only natural that one would be curious to understand what drives Jackie Chan to place his body under such extreme stress just in order to get that perfect stunt. This book promises to reveal that and much more.

The way to never grow up is to love what you do. I love movies. Making them keeps me young at heart. Most of the time, I forget how old I am!

Although the Chinese version of the book was released way back in 2015, it is only now that the English version is out. And just like the man and his movies, this book is a likeable memoir, honest, unflinching and entertaining. The book starts with his early years in Hong Kong, his initial schooling and his “dark decade” in the famous China Drama Academy (CDA). It was during this decade that his parents had moved to Australia leaving him at the mercy of the infamous Master Yu Jim-Yuen, who ran the CDA. According to Jackie Chan, his parents signed him off for ten years to study and stay at the boarding school. And so the foundation of the man who was to become a world famous martial artist was laid in this school. Luckily, because the school focused on drama, opera and fighting rather than the traditional academic subjects, Jackie Chan found a natural outlet towards the world of movies and acting.

The book traces his initial struggling days as a stunt extra along side other greats, notably Bruce Lee. He was an extra in the blockbuster Enter the Dragon, with a screen time of less than ten seconds. But his intensity and passion towards performing dangerous and risky stunts ensured that people kept in mind his young reckless kid who was good at combining action with comedy, leading to a whole new genre of movies.

The book describes his initial break as a lead actor and his swift rise to become a superstar, first in China and then across the world. Jackie Chan wistfully remembers his godfathers who gave him that break and a free hand in creating action sequences the way he liked them to be.

Jackie Chan also writes about his marriage and his child. This is where the pain is evident. Jackie makes it obvious that he has neglected his family for long, especially his son. From the chapters on his family, it made me feel that there is still an unspoken tension between Jackie Chan and his son. The imperfect portrait of a star who has “more dollars than sense” is kind of heart-breaking. According to the book, Jackie Chan does not know how to read and write. But then after his unbelievable success as an international movie star he hasn’t felt the need to.

…I do regret not learning to read and write or do math. When I grew up and went to America to make movies, everyone was using credit cards, but I couldn’t possibly. At the time, you had to fill out a credit card slip to pay for things, and I didn’t know how to write. Every time I signed my name, it looked different. Store clerks would compare the signature on the slip with the one on the card and didn’t believe they matched…Currently, I have an unlimited black card in my wallet and could buy a jet plane with it. It’s blank without a signature.

But I did feel that underneath the friendly nature and the ever-smiling face, there is a semi-dark egotistical human being. His extravagant shopping sprees and his seemingly childish revenges (on the sales girl who ignored him when he wasn’t well off, and his friend who swindled him of 3million dollars) are just two examples. But does that reduce me love for Jackie Chan? Not a bit. Maybe it is a cultural thing and I’m definitely not the right person to judge him for his flaws.

And what introspection of Jackie Chan would be complete without his jaw-dropping stunts, both for the audience and for him? He mentions in the book that there is probably not a single place in his body that hasn’t been wounded during the action sequences of his movies. One of the ugliest ones was his jump onto a tree in Armour of God, where effectively fractured his skull with blood gushing out of his ears and nose. Today at the age of 63, he keeps on making movies and entertaining people through his antics. But deep within, he probably knows that he has abused his body more than he should have.

My ankle joint pops out of its socket all the time, even when I’m just walking around, and I’ll have to pop it back in. My leg sometimes gets dislocated when I’m showering. For that one, I need my assistant to help me click it back in.

It is evident that through his journey, initially in the Chinese film industry and then in Hollywood, Jackie Chan has learnt a lot. It is this learning attitude that the book brings out nicely. At the end of the book the veteran Jackie Chan has two pointed appeals. One to the Chinese film industry to keep on learning from the West, and incorporating the best film making techniques into the beautiful tales from the East. The second appeal is for the national treasures of countries to be restored safely into the country of origin, helping preserve the ancient culture and dignity of those relics. Apparently, his movie Chinese Zodiac was an effort towards the same, and it did result in the return of some of such Chinese relics.

The book is peppered with classic Chinese philosophy, right from the way the Chinese prefer to raise their children, to their approaches to work and life. And it is clear that Jackie Chan does not want to be seen as the perfect movie star, husband or father, and he makes it evident that he learnt as he grew old.

I liked the memoir for its honest outlook about a flawed yet likeable human being. After all, who among us is perfect? Pick this book up to find out what lies beyond the two hours of carefully edited screen time of a movie, the pain and the passion that goes into making a Jackie Chan masterpiece.

The Laws of Human Nature – Book Review

I’ve enjoyed Robert Greene’s previous books immensely. The 48 Laws of Power was my introduction to the Machiavellian world of power and intrigue. Each page of the book was filled with useful ways to create an aura of power and become a more powerful social creature. His later book, Mastery focused more on an improvement of the self. In that book Greene explored the ways one can learn from the various Masters who have lived before us and have made a profound impact in various areas. And it was with this same interest and hope that I approached this book.

Just like his other books, this one is massive as well. Going for a never-ending 624 pages, it is by no means a quick read. And after reading through a few chapters, I realized that the book has fallen prey to the oft tried and tested trend in self-help literature. Anecdotes, anecdotes and more anecdotes. Mind you this is a safe method. That is why most self help literature heavily rely on this structure. But it is something that I greatly abhor. Yes successful stories do strengthen the conviction of a particular theory. But they also tend to suffer from confirmation and selection bias. It is almost as if Greene made a rough outline of the laws and then searched for examples that would fit these theories. Moreover it feels like that some of the anecdotes are greatly simplified or even modified to suit the narrative.

He might have done the same in his other books as well. But for some reason these anecdotes don’t work here. After a couple of chapters, I found myself skipping the anecdotes directly to the part where he explained a particular law.

Me, every five minutes

But by the time I reached the fifth law, I found it quite impossible to carry on. And hence I closed the book, abandoning it for good. I very much would have wanted to like this book and learn from it. But unfortunately the denseness of the material really put me off. The author has rambled on and on to fill up the book with feel-good stories and then propose a one-page full fount of self-help advice. I feel a better idea would be to go through the bibliography that the author has given at the end and instead peruse some of those works. That would be a more productive use of your time.