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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The Wealthy Renter

Buying a house vs renting a house is one of the most important life decisions that most people have to take at some point in in time. Whether you’re getting married, or having children, or simply moving out on your own, this decision will make a lot of difference in your life and finances.

On one side of this buy vs rent debate are proponents of the buy decision, who firmly believe that a house is a solid (no pun intended) investment as well as providing an abode – a place you can come back to at the end of the day. Besides owning a house means you don’t answer to anyone about how you want to decorate and spruce up the place you live in.

On the other side of the debate are the renters who want to stay flexible, who want to have an upper hand in being able to move easily, if the situation so arises. Renters believe that paying rent is not necessarily throwing away money. It’s simply being better aware of your fixed monthly expenses related to your housing.

Now from what I’ve read, the balance is heavily tilted towards the buyers. More people prefer to buy instead of rent, especially if they’re growing families. Buying a house is a major milestone in most families’ lives. It is often seen as a sign of getting settled. This is the trend across countries and there are common factors for this. The Wealthy Renter, by Alex Avery, however attempts to present the other side of this debate. Through the book, the author explains that renting has many benefits and if used correctly, it is not necessarily inferior to buying a house.

The book starts by pointing out that housing costs are one of the biggest expenses that people will make in their lifetimes. So much so that it can even play a major role in how quickly one can retire. Hence it is very important to consider both sides of the coin before making that decision. Where we live defines how we live our lives. Our housing choices determine how long it takes to get to work. How much time we spend with our friends and family. If you have kids, it determines where your kids will go to school, where they play, and who they play with. It can affect how well we do our jobs. It can determine how much money we have for other things, like travel and the nicer things in life, such as cars, clothes, jewellery, electronics, and collectibles. It’s probably the biggest factor that determines when we can retire and how we retire.

Avery explains that the reason why buying houses is the favoured trend in many developed countries is that the government plays a major role in pushing house ownership. From maintaining interest rates at a suitable level (according to the prevailing inflation) to providing tax rebates for house owners, the government makes it “lucrative” for people in the market for a house. There are reasons to this, as the author explains further. But some of these reasons were valid during a time when there was not much mobility. People grew up, went to school, lived and worked in the same town they were born. They were expected to retire there itself. During such a time and age, house ownership probably made complete sense.

But today economies are getting more interlinked, with technology obliterating the gap between the customer, who can be in one country, and the workforce in another. In this era of globalization, staying flexible becomes the order of the day.

The Wealthy Renter is full of reasons why renting can have multiple benefits in a young person’s life. Not only can it limit your housing expenses, it can also help you divert the balance of your savings into investments that can give a better rate of return than housing does. Although, the book is written keeping the housing trends in the Canadian economy in mind, the advice given in the book – like universal economic principles – can be adopted for people living anywhere in the world. One simply needs to be aware of the trends in their city – namely housing prices, average income levels, mortgage rates, etc. All of these factors will play a role in whether buying or renting makes more sense.

The book describes the ongoing trends and compares the six biggest cities in Canada. Unsurprisingly, the trends are similar to what one would have faced in their house hunting journey. Housing prices in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, being popular with job seekers, are increasing rapidly, often out of the reach of first time home buyers. There was one interesting piece of statistic that stands out in this book. Canada is the second-largest country in the world by area. The population of Canada is roughly 36 million. The population density is only 3.4 people per sq km. But of course, this density is not uniform. Considering that most of Canada gets cold, really cold, in the winters, the majority of people live in the southern part of the country, “…with more than 80% of Canadians living within 160km of the US border.” The population density in cities is much higher as a result, and consequently this demand on housing has led to a multi-decade boom in housing prices.

The author does a fabulous job in bringing to light many aspects of home ownership that are not apparent to someone who have never bought a home. He explains the hidden costs that are associated in owning a house. Property taxes, maintenance costs, legal fees, etc. often add up whenever you plan to buy or sell a house. He also talks about investment creep, which is real and significant mistake that many people make in their excitement of owning a new house for the first time.

The book makes convincing points on how housing should be seen as what it is – a combination of investment (the land) and expense (the building). The former can increase in value, while the latter can only depreciate.

By the end of the book, the author has laid out a convincing argument on how renting can be better than buying. Of course this cannot be applied to everyone blankly. It definitely depends on one’s circumstances, priorities and financial health. But it does plant a seed in your mind that renting can be a viable strategy after all.

In the end, whether you buy or rent, good financial habits will make the biggest difference in the quality of your lives. It will ultimately decide how and when you can retire. In my opinion, for renters to actually come out on top, the following two points are paramount. I would consider these two points to be the crux of the book’s advice:-

1) Rent for less than what your mortgage payments would be for a comparable house.

2) Invest the difference amount that you save into (diversified) stocks, mutual funds, or ETFs, that are likely to give you a better rate of return than housing.

Housing works because it is a forced savings plan. Once you have a mortgage with a bank, you’re essentially forced to make regular payments to the bank. But if you can keep the same discipline by investing your savings from renting at a lower amount, you can have the best of both worlds – become wealthy and at the same time be flexible in your life decisions.

This book is a part of a category of books that are aimed at the Canadian resident and are considered to be very good. The first one that I read was Wealthing Like Rabbits. The Wealthy Renter is the second one. There are more down the line and you can definitely expect reviews on those books very soon.

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What to do when you’re having two by Natalie Diaz

There are loads of books that help one guide through the uncertain, and often scary, nine months of pregnancy. However most of these books are focused on a single child pregnancy. For couples having a multiple pregnancy, i.e. twins, triplets or more(!), these nine months can be a harrowing period. Not only does one have to take additional care during these months of pregnancy, but life gets more chaotic after the angels are born. Mothers who have gone through the chaos that can accompany the first few months of a birth can attest to the fact that having twins can effectively stretch you even further for your time, money and effort in ensuring a smooth pregnancy and having healthy babies.

Thankfully there is a growing collection of books and other material targeted specifically for women with two or more buns in the oven. What to do when you’re having two is one such book written by a mother of twins who has gone through this experience first-hand. The author is also the founder of Twiniversity, an online forum filled with resources for people interested in learning more about a twin pregnancy and how to go about it while still being level-headed.

The book is short and easy to read. Consisting of twelve chapters, each part of the book deals with a different area that would-be parents are likely to scratch their head about. Right from the initial shock of knowing that there are two babies (or more) on the way, to questions about affording to raise them, this book tackles it all. Not only does it talk about the pregnancy, but it also describes the initial months after delivery that are bound to be most chaotic, especially in a twin delivery. As it should be, the author does not shy away from including the bad with the good and makes her point clear on how a twin pregnancy can potentially have higher risks than a singleton pregnancy.

What I liked about the book is that there is loads of actionable advice that will help calm the nerves of couple with a twin pregnancy. Especially if you live in the “western world”, the author reveals loads of ways that you can utilise to reduce the financial burden on raising more than one child simultaneously. I, for one, did not realise there are special support groups in bigger cities that are targeted at helping women with twin pregnancies cope with the emotional upheaval during such a time. There was even a section on how a C-section and a vaginal delivery takes place. This would be quite enlightening for first time parents.

The author also gives impeccable advice regarding the first few days after delivery, of observing the nurses and other hospital staff on how they handle your baby, in order to learn the right way to do it once you’re home and without any expert help around all the time. Yes, once you reach home, you will have only your spouse, family and friends to help you get through the initial amorphous mess that will be now your life for a few months. The author also discusses a few points on dealing with your children’s sleeping and eating patterns and keeping your sanity intact while doing so.

On the flip side, I felt that the book did not give sufficient focus on the pregnancy itself. Except for a couple of chapters, the book focused on similar tips and techniques that would be valid for a single pregnancy as well. This delicate phase of carrying two babies in your womb and how to ensure a healthy complication-free pregnancy could have been explained in more detail.

This book definitely should not be the only book that you read about bringing your child in this world. There are other books out there that are more detailed and useful in that aspect. But this book does give a good overview of what to expect when you’re expecting twice. Combine this book with other books that are well known and researched so that you’re fully prepared as you move towards this exciting phase in your life.

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Throw me to the wolves by Patrick McGuinness

This was a reddit recommendation and a much needed change of genre after ploughing through quite a few avoidable books in the non-fiction genre. I wanted to read a mystery/crime/thriller but wanted to steer clear of the unreliable narrator trope that is currently the in-thing in these categories of novels. A reddit user recommended this book and after reading the synopsis I felt hooked on to it.

Throw me to the Wolves is a novel about a crime, an investigation, and a suspect. The focus is on the police investigation and the back story of the suspect. Patrick Guinness interweaves these two main timelines along with side characters and a memorable inclusion of the incidents related to the sewer system of England in the 2010s. The author deftly moves in between these different events and paints an initial cynical portrait of a police office and his partner as they race against the red-tops and other morally questionable news outlets to solve the murder of Zalie Dyer.

The author is quite observant and has a witty style of writing. The prose is beautiful and a joy to read. At times though, I felt that the author did go overboard with the similes and metaphors but there is nothing jarring about his usage. Mr Wolphram, the prime suspect, has the choicest of dialogue, and his measured and precise replies to his interrogators paint an intelligent and confident persona of him that is a delight to meet.

All times are specific, Officer, it’s people who are not.

What I didn’t like about the book was that the plot seems to go nowhere almost till halfway through the book. The author seems to focus on the school events – that forms the backstory of the suspect – more than the investigation. Although this timeline plays somewhat of a minor role towards the end, it feels like a needlessly long drawn out narrative just to prove a single point. Towards the end of the book, the investigation suddenly picks up speed until the detectives solve the mystery almost within a few minutes. This jolt felt quite unrealistic and jarring from the meandering pace that the rest of the book follows.

But again, McGuinness writes a beautiful story. The chemistry between the lead pair of detective brings to mind a likeness to recent pop culture. It was like watching a season of True Detective. The description of the school and its students feels straight out of the iconic Another Brick in the Wall song by the inimitable Pink Floyd. Although debatable, this song also showcases the ugly side of the authoritative school system of Britain back in the days. The Trial is one of the most haunting chapters to read and would bring forth dark memories of school for many readers. Readers be warned.

The pain he inflicts has footnotes. The snap of the torturer’s glove is as pleasurable to a certain kind of person as the pain it presages, and the Doc is that kind of person.

Throw Me to the Wolves is a must read if you’re a fan of the police procedure sub-genre. But whether you’re a fan of the crime genre or not, I would recommend it for the beautiful observatory and on-point prose by the author.

Featured Photo Credit: Benjamin Davies
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