The Practicing Stoic – A gem of a book

I don’t remember where I got the recommendation for this book. It was either on Goodreads, snuggled within the comments section of another book, or it was on reddit. Either way, I’m grateful to the unknown individual that recommended this book.

The Practicing Stoic is an immensely lucid introduction to stoicism and it breaks apart the main principles of the philosophy beautifully. The author makes liberal references to the famous stoics and later philosphers who borrowed upon the stoic principles and gave their equally profound writings.

The most useful part of the book is its structure. I was amazed on how the author was able to group the various stoic teachings and works into various topics, each of which is very important to develop an all-round understanding of stoicism.

Mark my words, this book is a better introduction to stoicism than even the original texts themselves. The reason being, it simplifies for a beginnner what one should focus upon while reading the great stoic texts themselves. So I’d suggest people to read this before, let’s say, tackling, Meditations, or Letters from a Stoic.

In closing, I want to get one more thing off my chest. If one were to search for contemporary books on introduction to stoic philosophy, the search results would throw up books by a certain Ryan Holiday at the top. But without a doubt, this book blows any of Holiday’s work out of the water. I have read a few of his works, namely – The Daily Stoic, The Ego is the Enemy, etc. and after completing this book, I feel Ryan Holiday is no more than a tool, clubbed with the likes of Tim Ferriss. Save your time and grab this classic instead in case you want to find out more about stoicism.

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Talking to Strangers

I found it oddly satisfying that Talking to Strangers was the fortieth and the last book that I read as part of the Goodreads 2019 Reading Challenge. For those of you who are expecting this to be a self-help book, let me make it clear that is not (However there is one very important take away from this book personally). Instead it is an exploration of the various theories and mental models that are used in our daily interactions with strangers.
I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell after a very long time and had skipped the last few of his books. So, Talking to Strangers was something like a re-introduction to Gladwell for me. So how good is this book? Well, rather than putting a number to it, let me put it this way. This book is as good as Gladwell’s other books. Like all his writing, in Talking to Strangers, Gladwell tries to leave the audience with an important thought – whether our current mental models are helpful or harmful in our interactions with strangers. Using examples from varied fields (only some of which are relevant in daily life), Gladwell explains how social psychology can work for or against an individual and consequently can shape societal trends.

A mixed bag of characters

While the case studies on the Cuban spies and the Chamberlain meetings with Hitler may not be too relevant in today’s world, there are others that hit home hard. The cases of Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland and the drunk frat party incidents are particularly harrowing to read as these can affect you and me any day.
Gladwell proposes three major theories in this book – Default to truth, Transparency, and Coupling. The default to truth theory refers to people’s general inclination to believe that the other person is being truthful in his or her communication. This theory plays a major role in shaping negotiations between strangers, especially when there is an asymmetry of information. Gladwell says that although relying on the default to truth theory can sometimes work against you in some of the cases, it is a very worthwhile heuristic to keep in mind in our human interactions. Without it, he claims, that there would be a complete breakdown in trust, commerce and other activities. An example that Gladwell beautifully brings out as far as Wall Street is concerned.
The theory of Transparency proposes that an individual’s outer behaviour matches what they feel inside. If a person smiles and moves energetically, he is feeling elated inside.
We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people who give windy, convoluted explanations aren’t.
This is another heuristic that society uses in measuring up the other party in any interaction. A majority of people in the world are transparent. Their behaviour matches their inner feelings. So for the most part this heuristic works. From cops trying to find out whether a suspect is lying, or juries (or judges) when attempting to sum up a defendant. But for cases where people are not matched, relying on this heuristic can be very dangerous. Gladwell explains this with the case of Amanda Knox, an American woman, who was wrongfully incarcerated for four years in an Italian prison after being found guilty in a murder case. According to Gladwell, it was he mismatched behaviour and lack of transparency that led the police and the judiciary to rule that she was guilty, even in the light of insufficient evidence to prove that she was in the room where her roommate was murdered.
The Coupling theory proposes that the behaviour of an individual must be seen in relation to his circumstances. If, in our, interactions with strangers, we are not aware of the context in which the other person is behaving it can lead to confusion at best and disaster at worst.

The end-point

Like other books by Gladwell, Talking to Strangers is an easy read and I breezed through it well within a week. Gladwell must be complimented for his lucid writing and his ability to keep the readers hooked. It also helps that his stories nicely wrap together the theories that he proposes (the downside of this later).
On the other hand, it can also be argued that, as is with most nonfiction books, Gladwell stretches out a point needlessly with case studies and anecdotes, some of which are totally irrelevant to the individual. At other times it feels like that the author is trying to shape the interpretation to fit the theory. An example of this is using the Friends episode to explain the concept of Transparency. Totally, anecdotal in my opinion. In his own words, “I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and I’m interested in collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap.”
This does not mean that this book is not worth reading. For me, the biggest takeaway in the book for me was the issue of Transparency, or the lack thereof. Amanda Knox was caught and thrown in prison because of her lack of transparency. She could not show on the outside what she felt on the inside. And society misread her and wrongly punished her for it. Although such cases are far and few between, it still warrants a second thought on the importance of matching one’s outer behaviour with inner feelings.
Read Talking to Strangers if you’re interested in how individuals use these heuristics to process and simplify human interactions and what happens when these theories fail in practice. There is definitely a few useful pointers to take from this book and fans of Gladwell will definitely enjoy another thought-provoking book by him.

A little more on Gladwell’s writing

Now that brings me to a broader look at Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. Gladwell broke into the literary world through his first book – The Tipping Point which was an instant bestseller. He received a $1 million advance for writing it after his article on the same topic in the New Yorker. And through that book (and next bestselling book, Blink) the world of pop psychology was forever changed. Yes, that is what Gladwell’s writings can be classified into. His works do have popular impact and are often picked up by his readers as fact. As an example, the famous 10000 hour rule was first introduced by Gladwell in the Tipping Point. This limit is considered as a threshold for gaining expertise in any human endeavour. Post this there have been countless books and Youtube videos that profess the 10000 hour rule as gospel truth. That it has been equally debunked by other studies is a separate point.
There is no doubt that Gladwell’s writings makes society think. And his books bring otherwise bland and often dry theories to a wider audience. He can probably package the most yawn-worthy stories into a fun to read bestseller. Whether it is the Tipping Point, Blink, or Talking to Strangers, there’s enough serious material in each of these books to make you pause and think.
But personally I feel that beyond that initial ‘hmm’ and pause in one’s life, the reader tends to move on. Malcolm says that his aim is to get more people to take psychology seriously. But ironically, in order to do that, the serious reader would have to explore further and deeper than simply to spout the theories that he proposes in his books as gospel.
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Give me truth

 

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How to search for honest book reviews

As a fervid book reader I have always wanted my To-Read list to be full of good books. But while adding any particular book to this list, I have faced a dearth of honest book reviews.

In this age and era of fake news, it is not difficult to boost the ratings of any creative piece of work. In doing so good work often gets lost out in the depths of the Internet. Even relying on the best-seller list is not always the best strategy. I’ve often seen that the best-seller charts are not always filled with books of the highest quality. These charts are only what they claim – to list out books that are selling more than others. And over the years, I have learnt that not all books that are best sellers are necessarily due to their quality. Now I’m not saying that all best seller charts are rigged. Far from it. I often rely on best seller charts as a starting point to research my next reads.

However in order to add a book to my To-Read list, I have to read atleast a few reviews by like-minded people. In doing so I rely on a few well-known and trusted sites to give me unbiased and honest reviews. In order to simplify my search everytime I want to add a book to my To-Read list, I created a custom search engine that searches for book reviews in these sites and gives out a filtered set of results. The sites that are currently part of this search engine include amazon.com, goodreads.com, nytimes.com, and a few others.

Try the search engine out below and let me know how you feel about these results. Do comment if you have any particular book review site that you use regularly and feel should be added to the search engine.

Book Reviews Search Engine

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Black Edge Book Review

Black Edge, as defined by the author Sheelah Kolhatkar in the book, refers to insider information. In financial parlance, this is classified material that is unavailable to the general investing public and is thus considered illegal to take advantage of. The author claims that certain employees of the successful hedge fund SAC Capital brazenly obtained and relied on black edge to help the firm get the unbeatable returns that it showed over a period of time on Wall Street.

The genesis of this book was from a New Yorker article published in 2017 by the author. The rise and fall of a hedge fund that impressed Wall Street with its unmatchable profits for its investors seems to have warranted a book of its own. And what a book it was. If this were fiction, it would be one of the tautest thrillers making an entry at the top of various book charts. But as incredulous as it seems, Black Edge is non-fiction, pieced together from real life events – with larger than life characters – both in terms of their personalities and the vast sums of money involved. Such is this story of success and failure of one of the biggest and most envied hedge fund called SAC Capital Advisros, run by an equally maverick personality – Steven A Cohen. Through this book, Sheelah Kolhatkar has done an excellent job of bringing to light the events that led to the litigation and aftermath of this hedge fund.

What I liked immensely about the book is that although it goes into sufficient detail and lays down the groundwork for each character before merging him or her with the main story, it doesn’t meander in the origin story. The back stories of each character feel suitably trimmed. Many a times I’ve found authors exploring the background of a character to an unnecessary extent – often delving into painful and superfluous details – simply to justify a minor quirk in the character’s personality. Kolhatkar refrains feom doing that and for that I’m grateful to her for that.

Midway through the book I felt a certain sense of familiarity with the characters, specifically their behaviour and personality. I vaguely recognized them. On impulse, I did a Google search of two terms together and the results resolved my doubts once and for all. “Steve Cohen Billions” was the query that I typed in the search engine. And there you had it. The excellent TV show, Billions, and its character of Bobby Axelrod was partly inspired by Steve Cohen. Through his hedge fund, Axe Capital, Axelrod indulged in the same type of “convicted” stock market calls that has him beating the market and then some. He is also surrounded by employees trying to get in his good books, often bending and breaking the rules in the quest of higher profits. It is certainly a work of art if well-written prose can evoke so clearly related imagery. And I still find it incredible that there are such real life characters out there as well.

This story of SAC Capital Advisors – this story of hope, greed and desperation is worth reading. No matter if you’re related to the hedge fund or the finance industry or even otherwise. The book shows that, as often is the case, not all crimes get punished especially to the extent you and I would like to. But it is also heartening to know that not all wrong deeds go unpunished as well. Yes, the Feds may not have caught the big fish. But they did get a good catch nevertheless.

It was an indeed a pleasure to read Black Edge and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing about how Wall Street operates – specifically the opaque hedge funds that have dominated news feeds in the last decade. The book has only a handful of pages that I found boring. The rest of the book feels like a page turning thriller that you’ll enjoy reading and learning from.

As I mark this book read, I have only one question. Has this author written more books for me to devour?

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Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem

Nothing makes you question the purpose and meaning of life like hunger. Hunger is physical, it’s real.

Opening bets

This, my friends, is not a book. This is a lively narrated guided tour of Harlem, as it evolved through the second half of the 20th century. And it is an incredible life story of someone who has successfully fought the odds in life and has survived.

If you don’t know who Dapper Dan is, do not worry. You’re not alone. I myself did not know about him before I read this book. Based in Harlem, Dapper Dan is one of the most innovative and ground-breaking fashion designers who set up his own now-famous boutique in Harlem after having dabbled half his life as a hustler.

Hustle all the time

We were hustling before we even knew what the word meant.

Hustling as a verb has taken on a new meaning today. Urban Dictionary for example defines hustle as “Working hard, usually towards the common goal of creating an income.” But the hustle that Dapper Dan did all his life was based on the more traditional sense of the word, “to sell something to or obtain something from (someone) by energetic and especially underhanded activity.” For Dapper Dan, hustling was a way of life. Although he managed to stay away from other more debilitating addictions like alcohol and drugs, I guess hustling was his addiction.

As he would have said, a playa always be hustling whether on the streets or out of it. In one of the chapters he mentions about a time in his life when he had a respectable and responsible job of an assistant manager at a store. But the devious part of his hustling mind kept thinking of making extra money on the side. He explains how he tried to embezzle his employer’s money and got caught doing so. This resulted him in losing the job and almost got a friend fired as well.

Many of the hustles that Dapper Dan has dabbled in the past weren’t exactly legal. Gambling, selling drugs, credit card fraud, appropriating trademarks – his life was but an adventure on the wild side. At some point in time it did make me wonder for how long is a person responsible for all that he has done in the past, especially things that are not legal. But I realised that there are statute of limitations in law that define this boundary, beyond which an individual cannot be held to account (for minor crimes at least). I guess Dapper Dan was aware of these when he chose to disclose them.

Pretty fly

But it is evident that his experiences in his early life influenced and possibly even decided what he was going to do in his later life. As a playa, he was always fly. His unfailingly need to look dapper even got him his nick name and eventually led him to become a fashion designer.

It was about style and how you carried yourself in the street. It was about your shoes, the way you wore your hat. It was about the car your drove and how fly your girl dressed.

I understood how deep it was to be fly. It wasn’t the outside that was important. It was that thing that happened inside you that gave you strength. I felt powerful.

The book has a natural tone to it and is easy to. The story is so fascinating that I often ploughed through multiple chapters in a single sitting. It is most likely that the author narrated his story as he talked and walked in real life, and the book editor chose to keep the grammar and other lingo intact to capture the uniqueness of his style. It bring a richness and authenticity to the narration.

It is amazing how much Dapper Dan was fond of books and every time he started a new hustle he made it a point to read as much as he could find about that subject in order to give him an edge in the game. And boy was he ahead of the game. At one point in his life, he started “remaking credit cards” by scrounging for credit card receipts in the trash. He even swiped a credit card machine from a hospital and then proceeded on a multi-country jewellery buying binge. This was his paper game. This technique was so new that even when he got caught, the police and the judge had no clue about how the game actually worked and how serious their offence really was. As a result Dapper Dan and his partners got off lightly most of the time.

And just when you think that the game can’t be pushed any further, Dapper Dan went ahead and pushed it further anyway. By the late 1980s, Dapper Dan’s boutique was already quite popular with hustlers and rappers. When Harlem was facing a spike in the crime rate during this time, he started designing bullet-proof jackets for his hustler and rapper friends. Imagine a flashy Gucci-branded bulletproof jacket. Talk about having an untapped niche.

It is almost heart-breaking to read about how his store was pushed to the brink of closure and he himself had to face a dark period in his life when the big fashion brands descended on him for appropriating their trademarks. Of course what he did was questionable in the court of law, however he felt that his designs and creativity was still unique and original.

Intellectual property is still a gray area when it comes to fashion appropriation. Designers are constantly borrowing and sampling and getting inspiration from different cultures and from each other. It’s even more blurry in the art world.

What is not mentioned clearly or sufficiently in the book that lately Dapper Dan has in fact collaborated with these very same fashion brands that initially chose to choke off his creativity. For example he now has a partnership with Gucci and Louis Vuitton to co-create, using their brands and his own designs to create clothes in an inimitable style. But Dapper Dan hasn’t talked extensively about this partnership in the book. Neither has he talked a lot about his wife and children in the book. But that is completely natural if he wanted to keep his personal life and relationships out of the public eye.

Where to go from here?

There are a couple of potentially good book recommendations that I found in his memoir and I have already added them to my Goodreads shelf. Some of these books are probably out of print and it could be difficult to source them.

Even his description of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X, among others, had me branching out to other material while reading this book. I (re)watched the 2001 Muhammad Ali biopic starring Will Smith one evening. And now I have this whole list of movies set in Harlem on my to-do list to find out more about the time and place that he so memorably reminisces about.

Final bets please

Made in Harlem is definitely one of the best memoirs that I’ve read this year. This is a must must read if you’re an entrepreneur or are running or are planning to run your own business. It describes the kind of hustling that you need to do in order to grow your business, and sometimes survive and bounce back from failures.

What makes the story of Dapper Dan so amazing is that it is so improbable. For ever Dapper Dan that comes out of under-privileged environments, there are hundreds others who fail to make it. Even in his own family and friends, he lost many acquaintance who succumbed to one vice or the other. This makes this book all the most important as an inspiring tale of surviving the odds in life. Odds – that is what Dapper Dan beat, both literally and metaphorically. And oh yeah, talking about odds, I now know how to play Cee-Lo.

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My book reading workflow

I have been reading since childhood and never did I realise that a book reading workflow is a thing that I would one day develop. As a child, things were simple. I could always make time for books. Books took priority over most other things in life. But as grown-ups we no longer have that freedom, flexibility and those long periods of uninterrupted time. With other responsibilities taking preference over your favourite hobby, having a workflow in place starts making sense. Neither was my workflow intentional  nor did it emerge instantaneously. I guess it just evolved over time from an amorphous set of undefined and random activities to a well-oiled set of definite steps. Let’s find out what they are.

Want to Read

What gets measured gets managed.

This is a quote made famous by the legendary management guru Peter Drucker in his book, The Practice of Management. It has become of my maxims in my self-improvement journey. I keep in mind this quote everytime I want to develop a good habit. Running? I measure how many minutes I ran. Diet? I measure my weight regularly. Building a meditation practice? I keep a daily log of my meditation times.

Measuring something is the first step to improving your performance at it. So if your goal is to read as many books as you can, an imperative is to start by tracking your book reading.

There are multiple ways to do it. You can simply use a notepad and keep a list of books that you are reading or are planning to read. If you want to be more thorough, you can add start and end dates to track how long it took you to complete a book.

I use Goodreads to plan and maintain my book reading workflow. LibraryThing is another site that I recommend for tracking your books. The difference between the two? If you want a social experience, I would recommend Goodreads. If you want a private library, then LibraryThing is, well, your thing. I started with Goodreads, moved on to LibraryThing for a while and then switched back to Goodreads. I like the uncluttered interface of Goodreads better. I would suggest you try out both these websites and make your own choice. Trello is another excellent task manager that I dabbled in for some time. It has a card and board based layout that can mimic the book shelves in Goodreads or LibraryThing. A task manager like Trello works when you just want to track your books and are not interested in the metadata that both of these websites provide.

Ideally I would prefer to plan out in advance my entire book reading list for the year. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you come across a good book while randomly browsing the library or your neighbourhood book store. Sometimes you come across a book being recommended in the book that you are reading. And down you go exploring the rabbit hole.

One useful suggestion. While selecting books, do not simply go by the blurb or even reviews. Make a point to browse through the book and see if it appeals to you. One of my first steps whenever a book catches my eyes to quickly go through the Table of Contents. Be it in the book store or on Amazon’s website, this is a must before I add the book to my workflow.

Whenever I find a book that seems interesting, I add it to my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads. This becomes the pool of potential next reads. If you’re really serious about maintaing a steady rhythm in your book reading workflow, I would suggest you to sign up for the Goodreads yearly challenge. This is another nifty feature of Goodreads that lets you set a target for the number of books that you think you can complete in a year. You see, what gets measured gets managed.

Currently Reading

On your marks

Once I’ve decided on which book to read, I set up a reminder in my to-do app a week down the line. Although I try to complete reading the book much faster than that, a weekly reminder helps as an outer limit.

One or many?

There are people who like to read more than one book at a time. They can switch effortlessly between the two stories, plots and characters. I’m not a good multi-tasker. So I prefer to read one book at a time. Pairing books while reading has its own pros and cons. On one hand, having an alternate book to switch to (especially in a different genre) is a good way to keep away from monotony. On the other hand, it can also leave you divided for attention. This is especially evident while reading non-fiction when it helps to be completely focused on the material. Neither of these approaches has a significant advantage all the time, so I leave it up to you whether you want to read multiple books at a time or focus on a single book.

Once I start reading a book, I move the book to the Reading shelf on Goodreads. Also I regularly update the page that I’m currently at on Goodreads regularly to keep myself motivated on my progress.

Read

I highlight my books profusely. I like to be able to refer to these highlights without having to go through the entire book again. So if the book that I read was on my Kindle, I extract the highlights from my Kindle account and copy them to Evernote which is the tool that I use to store all my notes. This also ensures that I have a copy of my highlights and notes with me in case one fine day the book (and its highlights) disappear from my device.

If it is a paper-based book, it is not as simple as copy and paste. It requires a couple of steps more. Earlier I typed out all my highlights directly into Evernote but I have seen that it takes a lot of time. Instead now with the advent of excellent voice recognition technology, I can simply dictate my highlights and notes. To do this you have a lot of options currently. I’ll quickly describe a few of them:-

  1. Swiftkey (or other smartphone keyboards) – Swiftkey has been my preferred keyboard on my smartphone for years. With its excellent prediction technology and its customisable layouts, Swiftkey is a better option than any other keyboard app. It also has an option to type text on your phone using speech recognition technology. Open your favourite note-taking app, press the microphone button and you can simply dictate your notes and highlights as you read. Please note that this service uses Google’s speech recognition service and your speech is processed on Google’s servers.
  2. Otter.ai – This is another program that is fast gaining popularity and is also very accurate in its speech recognition. The free version of the service gives you around 500 minutes of speech recognition every month and I think that is is more than enough for the average reader. Otter.ai also uses its own infrastructure to process your speech on their servers.
  3. Google Docs Voice Typing – If you use Chrome as your browser and have a Google account, then you can also use Google Docs (that is the online version of Microsoft Word) to recognise speech directly into the editor. Again this uses the Google infrastructure for its speech recognition.
  4. Dragon Naturally speaking – This is one of the oldest speech recognition software available today. It has improved over the years and is probably one of the best speech recognition programs available for Windows (and other platforms). Of course this software is not free and will cost you a few bucks. But be reminded that you will probably have to train the software in order to get a decent level of accuracy from it.
  5. Online transcription services – There are a lot of transcription services online where you can hire a person to transcribe your audio for you. A couple of websites that provide this service includes fiverr and craigslist. But I wouldn’t recommend going so far as asking someone to type out your notes and highlights. First there will be a considerable turn around time for getting your transcribed text sent back to you. Secondly, in this day and age of Alexas and Siris, voice recognition has become a trivial problem. With powerful and accurate software available in the palm of your hand, there is no reason why would want to go through this approach for an incremental improvement in accuracy.

One final point in this section.

Enter Calibre

Purist book lovers swear by this software that allows you to organise your e-book library on your own computer. It can easily convert between multiple formats giving you the ability to read on your favourite app or e-reader. But that is one more reason why I like Calibre. I’m not ashamed to admit that I hate DRM on my e-books just as much as the other guy. I often de-DRM the books that I have bought to keep a reference for my personal use. Just like I own my paper-based books for ever and am not simply renting them, I believe that I should have life-time (and transferable) ownership of digital books as well. Because this is a grey area and laws are different in each country, I would suggest you to do your own research before de-DRMing your e-books. Of course, if you’re going to share your de-DRMed books online then you’re stupid and you deserve the penalties. No way do I condone or encourage that.

Wrap up

As I come to the end of the book and close the cover, there are a couple of steps left to do. First is to rate the book on Goodreads so that I can get more accurate recommendations in the future based on my ratings. I also try to write out a review of most of the books that I read. This helps me to summarise the book before I shelve it in the Read category. It also helps other people to make their purchase decision for their next book. After all that is what this blog is all about, right?

So there you have it. My three step workflow for reading books. Hope you liked it. How does your own workflow differ? Is it shorter and simpler than this? Or is it much more elaborate? Do let me know in the comments section.

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Borderless Economics

A brief read of the blurb, a look at the table of contents, and I was hooked. I often base my book selections after reading the table of contents. Sometimes this works, sometime it doesn’t. In this case, I’m glad it did.

This book is about people, and their stories. Stories of how they moved from the country they were born in to an unknown country – in search for freedom, wealth and a better standard of living. The author, Robert Guest, is the Foreign Editor for The Economist. As part of his work assignments, he has travelled and lived in many corners of the world. Placed in this unique position, Robert had an exposure to different cultures, and how people in these cultures have attempted to change their economic state – and to a certain extent, their country’s – through migration.

The book talks about the various diasporas across the world – the majority being dominated by the Chinese, Indians, and people from African nations. The interesting thing is that each group of these people are attempting to influence economic growth in different ways. The Chinese businessman, the Indian doctors and Silicon Valley founders, and the Nigerian agents have their own tried and tested method that differs from each other as chalk from cheese. Yet these methods work to benefit the migrants and both the nations that these migrants straddle.

In each chapter, the author leads with the stories of individuals or groups of people – migrants mostly – who have attempted to better their life situations. He then follows it up with numbers in some cases. And this format works because stories are known to be powerful. They can build a more compelling narrative and sometimes are more relatable than simple facts. Stories are more humanistic than statistics. If used correctly (and sparingly), they can engage readers fully with an incomparable effectiveness. Perhaps that is why ancient philosophers chose to impart moral lessons that were wrapped in fables or tales.

Guest makes a very important argument that although “brain drain” may be a concern in the countries where these migrants originate from – some specific examples being Indian doctors and engineers – and Philippine nurses, overall such migration actually boosts skills than deplete them.

What I also liked is that the author does not simply fill the book with the positive effects of migration. He also presents the dark side of tribalism – religious terrorism, drugs, mafia, and to a certain extent, even civil wars. These negative aspects can have severe effects that last for years. But this is an unfortunate consequence which should not simply be a reason to stop or to discourage migration.

The author ends the book by devoting a couple of chapters on the favoured destination for migrants – America. Although the entire book is filled with delightful stories and insight, I enjoyed the these chapters on America the most. Evidently, even today, America is one of the most popular countries where migrants choose to move. The author explains the reasons succinctly,

First, America offers an unbeatable material standard of living. Second, it offers the widest variety of niches,”… “virtually any immigrant can fit in, whether she is a socially conservative Arab or an ostentatiously gay Nicaraguan.

The author also rips apart the various global polls and surveys that often rank certain Nordic European countries as having the best quality of life.

These rankings often miss important nuances, however. They tend to measure the absence of problems rather than the presence of opportunity or excitement. Countries are (correctly) penalised for infants who die or homes that lack broadband. But what these indices fail to capture is the buzz that sets some countries apart. The Nordic countries are nice places: polite, prosperous and orderly. But how many people, given the choice between living in Finland or America, would pick Finland?

No wonder America continues to be the most favoured nation for migrants. However, here I have to point out that this book was written in 2011 and there is yet another point that the author makes about America and its treatment of migrants.

American talk-show hosts sometimes say odious things about illegal immigrants, but no openly xenophobic politician can attract the kind of support that France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002…

Ahem. If you’re aware of the current political scenario in America at the time this article was written (mid 2019), you can pretty much judge whether this assertion still holds true.

The author ends the book by explaining his theory of why America will continue to be number one in spite of faster economic growth in countries like China. But to keep that position, the author explains that America will have to revamp its current immigration policy significantly.

About a million green cards (which allow permanent residency) are issued each year, but these are allocated mostly to family members of those who already live in America. In a typical year, only 15 percent are awarded on the basis of skills. No other rich nation puts such a low priority on work-based immigration.

Lately other countries such as Canada and Australia have started welcoming immigrants much more freely and actively based on skill based programs. Who knows, over time, these nations may better reap the benefits of skilled immigration.

I actually felt disappointed when I completed this book. It seemed to end too soon. I wanted more – more stories of brave migrants, more stories of countries that welcome them, and how both these pieces of the puzzle fit together to create synergy. At some level, I even want the author to revisit this book and update it, based on the changes that the world has seen since the book was published. That is, of course, wishful thinking. As of now, one can only follow the author in his subsequent works online.

In closing I just have one curious question. Although the book does point out the effects that migration has on the economies of nations, the author could have delved into the economics aspect in more detail. The deep focus on the stories about the individual and the relatively superficial focus on the economics part makes me wonder whether “Borderless Economics” is the perfect title of this book. But these are just nitpicks.

All In all, I absolutely loved this book. Although I am not a big fan of authors using anecdotes to fill up pages in a book, I feel that Robert Guest has used his stories effectively, to complement the points that he makes in the book. This makes the book a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about the reason and benefits of global migration. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a potential migrant dreaming about moving to a countries with better standard of living or whether you’re already a citizen of such countries. Both sides are likely to benefit from this.

Today information flows freely across the world without any controls or restrictions (well for the most part anyway). We are years away from creating a world that allows a similar flow of people – in and out of nations – free to live and conduct their business in their country of choosing. But one can dream.

Featured Photo Credit: mauro mora
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The Bed of Procrustes

If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated.
Nassim Taleb
Love me or hate me, I’m here to stay.

In the last ten years, Taleb has emerged as one of the most famous (even if controversial) writers on finance and human behaviour. Having written some best-selling books like Black Swan, and Fooled by Randomness, Taleb definitely commands a solid position in financial literature.

So it was surprising to me that this book was not about yet another exploration into the world of finance. Instead this is a book of aphorisms loosely linked to a tale in Greek mythology, that of Procrustes. Procrustes was a bandit who forced his victims to lie on a bed. Depending on whether they were shorter or longer than the bed, Procrustes tortured them to fit the bed by either stretching them or cutting off their legs.

If one looks beyond the symbolism, one finds that this is a common human fallacy. Rather than basing their theories on the observed evidence, people force-fit the evidence to suit their theories. And many a fortune has been lost as a result of this.

This book is a mixed bag as far as the coverage of topics and the quality of aphorisms go. Some of them are quite brilliant, some are plain ordinary,

The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.

and yet some make you wonder whether the author is simply venting out on some group or the other. For instance, Taleb seems to have a long standing feud against bankers, critics and academicians. He devotes entire chapters in ridiculing these groups through the aphorisms.

Just as no monkey is as good-looking as the ugliest of humans, no academic is worthier than the worst of the creators.

This book is part of his Incerto, a collection of four books that have been best-sellers individually. But in this book, you won’t necessarily find any linkage with the world of finance. So it doesn’t matter if you have not read the books in this collection.

Another highly recommended work of maxims is that by François de La Rochefoucauld, a noted 17th century French author. His book Maxims is quite a comprehensive body of work.

The problem with a book of maxims, quotes or aphorisms is that however brilliant it may be, it doesn’t feel original. This is not the fault of the author but of the subject itself. Good principles span across civilization and eras, whether they are in the form of a Zen koan, a Sufi couplet, or Greek fables.

Here Taleb has adapted some of these aphorims to fit into the current day scenario. He, at times, does goes on a rant as mentioned earlier. But the book is still worth reading because of the underlying lessons that the aphorisms impart.

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