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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The Acquirer’s Multiple review

I came across this book in a podcast that I regularly follow. And if I remember correctly, I had also come across this book mentioned multiple times on twitter. And I picked it hoping that it would give some new insight on the art of stock-picking.

The book is meant for beginners to the world of stock investing. The author makes this quite clear at the beginning of the book itself that it is going to be a non-technical book, unlike his earlier work Deep Value that is much more detailed work for the seasoned investor. I believe all books should have this kind of clarification – the kind of audience that they are catering to. It would make selecting the right book a whole lot easier for the reader. Moving on.

Zig to the zag – Not a new dance move

Zig. This is the first piece of advice that the author gives. What does this mean? In simple terms what the author is saying that in order to become a successful investor who can beat market returns is to zig when the rest of the world is zagging. Effectively, this is what being a contrarian means. Having ideas that are contrary to the popular opinion. This is one of the ways how good stock pickers get better returns than the rest of the investors.

The author makes a good point that you need to be right while having a contrarian view. If you’re right along with the market, you will only make market returns, not beat it. And if you’re wrong, then obviously you will lose money. But I wonder whether beating the market returns is really a priority for the investor who is just starting out. Wouldn’t he be satisfied making market returns? Of course, a simpler way would be to invest in an ETF that tracks the market.

Thy shalt revert to the mean

The author also introduces the concept of mean reversion. Again to put it simply this means that stocks do not stay away from their true value for long. Things go back to normal. Think of it as a pendulum. Every time it moves in one direction, there is a greater force pulling it in the opposite direction. The momentum of the pendulum fights with this opposite force until both are equal. That is when the pendulum stops moving further and starts reversing. According to this concept, stocks that are undervalued are likely to rise in price whereas overvalued stocks are likely to fall down sooner or later.

The mean reversion principle is a popular and tested concept. But there is a big caveat that the author has chosen to ignore here. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes once said about the market, “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” This means that chances are that if you have bought into a battered stock in the hopes of having it rise according to the mean reversion principle, you could be waiting years (or decades) before it inches up. So while this principle may stand true theoretically, one needs to be aware of the time horizon of investing and the level of risk one is comfortable with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Buffett we trust

Carlisle’s theory, the Acquirer’s Multiple, is a new and improved way of looking at the attractiveness of a stock compared to market capitalizaion. He even claims that the Acquirer’s Multiple is better than the other famous and proven stock picking methodology – The Magic Formula by Joel Greenblatt. Apparently Carlisle claims that his way of picking stocks i.e. buying fair companies at wonderful prices is even better than Warren Buffett’s preferred method – buying wonderful companies at fair prices.

But for all the claims that the author makes on the superiority of his approach, he surely spends a lot of time explaining Buffett’s methods. There are a couple of chapters wasted on giving a history lesson on how Buffett started off with his famous cigarette butt approach of investing until his partner Charlie Munger knocked some sense into his head. Since then Buffett has practiced the wide-moat based investing philosophy.

Finally after a few chapters of talking about other contrarian investors, notably Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn, the author sets out to put forth his theory of the Acquirer’s Multiple. Even by definition this is not something new. The Acquirer’s Multiple simply uses part of the strategy that the Magic Formula uses. The author claims that in his testing, his approach beat the returns of the Magic Formula.

Again many of the points that he makes mirrors Buffets approach anyway. Carlisle liberally quotes Buffett from the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters. Take for example his focus on operating earnings. Buffett has always stressed the importance of operating earnings over other popular but artificially skewed measures such as EBITDA. Buffett and Munger have left no stone unturned in ridiculing the EBITDA.

What I disliked was that the author spends an inordinately long time detailing stories of other investors who have used different methods to get rich. In fact the theory of the Acquirer’s Multiple is not discussed until Chapter 5. After having explained his theory across a couple of chapters, again the author goes off in another tangent describing the exploits of Loeb and Icahn. Strangely, the chapter about Loeb has some inconsistent usage of tense, something that a sharp editor would have most likely spotted and corrected.

Is this really for the beginning investor?

The Acquirer’s Multiple, as a theory, may be an effective way to beat market returns. But the Acquirer’s Multiple, as a book, simply begs to be avoided. Firstly, the entire content of the book can be condensed into a small but crisply written whitepaper. I continued reading the book while waiting for a connecting flight. In any other situation, I would have simply closed the book and moved on.

Secondly, there are no new ideas presented here that are revolutionary. Although the author claims that the Acquirer’s Multiple gives better results than Greenblatt’s Magic Formula, I am still skeptical. Moreover the latter was groundbreaking when it was introduced. It simplified and distilled for the average investor the advice of Graham and Buffett. It proved to be an easy and reliable framework to pick good stocks that were likely to give a good return, maybe even beat the market. The Magic Formula combined quality companies with companies that were cheap. The Acquirer’s Multiple does away with checking the quality aspect. Doing so can be disastrous for stock market returns. High risk does not necessarily equate to high returns.

The Acquirer’s Multiple, on the other hand, does include a collection of amusing stories sandwiched between a few pages of theory. Thankfully, the book is really a short read, especially if you are aware of value investing even at a basic level. I finished it within a few hours, as the author claimed at the beginning. In closing, if you are a new investor simply starting out in the world of stock market investing, I would recommend a safer approach to buying stocks. If you are an advanced investor, then surely there are more substantial books than this? Why zag when you can zig, eh?

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6 simple ways to enhance your reading on a Kindle Paperwhite

Reading on a Kindle is quite different from reading a paperback. Although a Kindle Paperwhite is my preferred mode of reading due to its convenience and its near replica feel to paper, there are certain things that an e-reader cannot replicate (yet). The intoxicating smell of paper (yes that is a fetish for some), the rustle of pages that interrupt an otherwise continuous silence, and the weight of the book in your hands.

But if you have bought an e-reader and are looking to make it your primary mode of reading, there are certainly some tweaks that can be used to enhance your reading experience on a Kindle.

Enter the Font-a-rama

If your e-reader gives you the option to choose fonts, don’t simply use the default font. Search about the various font sites online and select a font you find suitable for long periods of reading. I feel that serif fonts (the one with the squiggly bits and curls) are more suited to long form reading. This blog, for example, uses the Merriweather font for its main content. This is one of my favourite fonts because of its clean lines and elegant type. Da Font is one of my favourite sites to find free fonts that you can load on your e-reader. Some fonts that I prefer are Georgia, Bookerly and Merriweather.

Size does matter

One of the biggest advantage of an e-reader is the ability to change the font size. It is not only a boon for low accessibility users but it can play a major role in your focus and concentration depending on what the subject of your book is. I’ve found that having a bigger font size helps while reading books that are harder to understand. For books that are a breeze to read, like fiction, having a smaller font size works well enough to keep a steady rhythm without losing your place in the text.

Reading between the lines

Just like the font size, some e-readers give an option to adjust the margins and the line spacing. Adjusting these two settings also help a lot in keeping yourself focused on the text. Wide margins and spacing for harder texts. Narrow margins and spacing for easier to read books.

Everybody move to the left

Many e-readers also have the ability to align text differently. The left and the right alignment are understandable. I’m not sure what exactly is the use of providing the ability to centre-align text. Maybe for poetry? Although justified text is the common format in paperbacks, I do not recommend having the same setting on an e-reader. The reason for this is that paper books have been typeset for a particular font and size. If you have adjusted any of the settings explained above, the justified text formatting may not be the most optimum. There would be certain lines that are crammed with words while other lines would have but a handful. That jars the reading continuity. Turn on left alignment if available in your e-reader. It may not look as pretty but will be much better for your reading.

The light in the night

Kindle (and other e-readers) have a model that has an inbuilt light that serves two major purposes. One, when you turn it to the maximum in daylight, it is supposed to simulate the color of paper, thus giving a more natural feel to your reader. Secondly, it is designed to help you read in the night without having an ambient light turned on. This is useful for those reading in bed without disturbing anyone else in the room. Now I don’t have any qualms with the latter. But I feel that having a light turned on during daylight simply affects my reading. The backlight fades out the text a bit and makes it more uncomfortable to read. So I keep it off while reading in daylight. And I don’t particularly care about having a non-white paper feel to it.

Are we there yet?

Before the advent of e-readers, the only way to know how many pages were left in a chapter or a book was to just peek a few pages down and check. E-readers often have a notification that shows your how much time is left in the current chapter or book. This helps in pacing your reading just so that you can push yourself to read a few pages more (nudge nudge wink wink). At other times, it is just a distraction. Use it or turn it off as per your preference.

Hope these tips help you improve the way you read on your favourite e-reader. Let me know if these helped you or if you have any tips of your own on how to enhance the Kindle reading experience.

Featured Photo Credit: Aliis Sinisalu
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The Intellectual Life

A toast to “bookception”

I came across a recommendation for The Intellectual Life while reading another excellent book on a related topic – Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you have been following my blog posts, you would know that one of my favourite ways to find new book recommendations is within existing books. Often such book recommendations go deeper and are more likely to be original content.

After having read both these books, I can confidently say that Cal Newport found a lot of inspiration from The Intellectual Life. He has extracted some of the best advice given in this book and packaged it in a way that people today can easily understand. And just as well.

The Intellectual Life by AG Sertillanges, a French philosopher, is not an easy book to get through. Written in the early 20th century, the style of writing is a little dated. You may not be able to understand certain passages the first time around. Thus you will need to definitely re-visit this book after a while.

However I would suggest you to stick with this book and giving it your full attention. P.S. if you’re struggling with attention, this book has certain tips for that as well. Talk about being meta. In fact, while reading this book, there were many meta moments that had me chuckling. For example, I had been making copious highlights and notes while reading this book. And then I came across the chapter where Sertillanges explains the right way to take notes. The author says,

Some people have so many [notes] and such full notebooks that they are prevented by a sort of anticipatory discouragement from ever opening them… Their imaginary treasures have cost much time and trouble, and they yield no return. Thank God there are many fine things in books; will you therefore copy down the whole National Library? Keep notes after thinking, and with moderation… Do not include the passage in your notes without letting some time elapse. Quietly, you will judge of the value of your harvest and store up only the good grain in your barns.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t put aside this book for a while as I felt embarrassed at my own incessant highlighting. But… but the juicy content… moving on anyhow.

The author kicks off by explaining what the virtues of an intellectual person should be. He goes on to describe how life should be organised so that one may keep a balance between isolating himself completely from the world and spending too much time in society doing frivolous activities. Once he has set the expectations of what an intellectual should do, the author moves on to explain how to best take up intellectual work. From my reading, I felt that the author talked about getting into a flow state, a concept that has been explored lately by multiple authors in how athletes and other high performing individuals manage to get much more work done than the rest of the ordinary folks.

Each part of the day has its own unique characteristics, says the author, and it is important to known and utilise these differences by doing the kind of work that is suitable to the time of day. For example, the author mentions that evenings should be used to prepare the work for the next day so that there is a sort of continuity of work between two consecutive days. This, he says, will definitely give a jump start as far as productivity is concerned. Of course, not everyone is built the same and each individual has his own body cycle – some of us being larks, others owls. But as long as one is able to understand his own body cycle, he should be able to make the most of the ebb and flow of energy and concentration levels throughout the day.

The author, AG Sertillanges
How can I make this book utterly brilliant but difficult to read at the same time?

Sertillanges then talks about the spirit of work, of the things that you need to keep in the background while undertaking your field of work. This will keep a sense of objectivity to the work as well as help you approach it in the right spirit. He debates the pros and cons of two different routes that one can take in their intellectual journey – the broad based approach, where one reads about multiple subjects/disciplines and tries to find interconnections and linkages between these fields (something that Charlie Munger has also advocated in his famous latticework of mental models), or the narrow-based approach, where one digs deeper into a subject that he has found interest in. Essentially whether to become a generalist or a specialist.

The latter part of the book deals with the preparation of work, how one should read, how to remember what was read, and how to take notes. Strangely but understandably, the author advises moderation in all these areas. One does not become an intellectual by reading more and more books. More important is how much one understands and is able provide original commentary upon. The same is with trying to memorise everything that one has read. Although the author meant this for an earlier time and age, today it becomes even more foolish to be a good memoriser, especially when there are multiple tools at our disposal to retrieve any information that is needed at any moment. The 24/7 connectedness of our lives has, I dare say, done away with our requirement of an extensive memory. Whether that is a good thing or bad, I leave it up to you. This chapter ends with a useful approach that the author prescribes to take and organise notes. People preferring to use the traditional paper-based note-taking may find this advice useful.

The author then deals with one of the most important parts of the book – the creative effort. For an intellectual, creation is paramount. Be it in the form of a book, a painting, a theorem, or simply original thought, creation is supposed to be the end result of your intellect. “One cannot be forever learning and forever getting ready.” This author lists down the qualities that are needed in order to create complete and useful works. Detachment, patience, persistence, and knowing your limits. These are the qualities that are discussed. If you’re running short of time or are frustrated with the ye olde language of the book, I would suggest that you read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 completely. These two chapters contain enough useful and actionable advice to help create a marked difference in your productive output.

The book closes with some advice on how to keep oneself sane in the quest for intellect. It is very easy to go overboard in this often lonely journey, as have many geniuses in their time. The author advises that one should not forget the rest of life in pursuing your goals. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other goals.” The secret according to the author is keeping a balanced view on life. Relaxation, exercise, social interactions, gratitude and a hopefulness towards success is what will keep you on the tracks when the going gets tough.

I felt so privileged to have come across this book and to have enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunately, this book is not available in a Kindle format so I will have to type out all the highlights and notes that I made in the margins to keep them better organised and referable. The Intellectual Life is probably going to be a book that I will keep going back to at times whenever I feel a creative block coming up. Beg, borrow or steal this book if you’re interest in knowing about the creative process or developing an intellectual mindset.

Featured Photo Credit: Aaron Andrew Ang
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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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The Order of Time – A primer on understanding time or a waste of time?

Even the words that we are speaking now
thieving time has stolen away,
and nothing can return.

Upfront I must admit this was one of the most complicated books that I have read this year. And as I end this book, a question comes to my mind. Was this a coherent set of thoughts? Or was it a ramble? Was it a primer on understanding time, or a waste of time? Honestly, I don’t know.

The Order of Time is written by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist. Rovelli is one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. As the title suggests, the book is on the subject of time and the various theories for understanding time that scientists have developed over the years.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part of the book is called The crumbling of time. Here the author starts out with describing what physics has learnt about the concept of time. Many earlier theories on time have since been debunked by scientists and with each new theory, the concept of time has become more and more complex. To me, it seems that time has become its own nemesis.

The second part is called The World Without Time. This part of the book is a unique one. Here the author tries to describe what a world would be without time. The third is called sources of time. According to the author, this part is “the return journey, back toward the time lost. This third part of the book is what the author claims to be the most difficult. Yes there is an actual warning in the book by the author encouraging the less intellectually minded to skip a couple of chapters because of their dense subject matter.

I would be lying if I said that I understood this book completely. Or at all. To put it out frankly, other than a few paragraphs scattered here and there throughout the book, I felt that a considerable part of the book was above my intellectual payscale. I’m not sure if it is a case of bad writing (or translation. This book was originally written in Italian) or it is simply that the modern concepts of theoretical physics are beyond the reach of the average human brain.

The author has used quite a romantic style of writing with metaphors generously sprinkled throughout the book often between dry facts about time. It is evident that the author cares deeply about the subject and his writing is heartfelt. But I felt a lack of coherence in the treatment or the exploration of the subject. Maybe it was just the technical nature of the content. I simply had to rely on the easier passages to carry me along the book.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, the author goes on one of the strangest digressions I’ve ever come across. The author reminisces about a couple of his teachers, and starts to write an almost personal letter to them, who are since dead. But then he suddenly catches himself realising that he is digressing. I wonder if this was an subconscious stream of thought that the author dived into and apparently the editor chose it interesting enough to retain it.

Benedict Cumberbatch The Order of Time
I guarantee you’ll enjoy my narration even if you don’t understand a bit of it.

One useful tip. If you can, get the audiobook version of the Order of Time. It is read by Benedict Cumberbatch and he does a brilliant job of it. The genius actor makes even the most complicated parts of the book a pleasure to listen to.

All in all, I feel that this book will be suitable for quite a limited audience. Maybe those who are already experts in modern physics or are interested in this subject area would consider this book a worthwhile read. For the rest of us mortals, I’d suggest giving this book a miss. You might as well save your time. If there is indeed such a concept, now that the author has denied it in this book.

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The Path of Least Resistance

With both books and people, I like when they come to the point quickly. If you can get your point across simply, quickly and accurately, that would be a worthwhile quality to have. Unfortunately this book does not have that quality.

This book is about creativity, and how it can be develop by using natural laws – similar to that of physics. Bodies always take the path of least resistance in achieving a task. If you pour water on an uneven surface, it always flows downards through the lowest grooves in the surface. And supposedly the author has a magic key to finding this path. I was taken in by the very interesting opening paragraph of the book when I was browsing it. And I decided to give it a try.

But there are a couple of reasons why I don’t recommend reading this book

  1. The long, winding path to nowhere – The book started off well. The author seemed to be creating a logical foundation on which to expound his theory. But within a few chapters it was evident that the author did not seem to be in any hurry to make his point. I feel that the main point of the book – the juicy content – should be revealed within the first third of the book. At this point I often decide whether it is worth going ahead with the rest of the book or to let it go.  As far as this book is concerned, I’m well beyond this tipping point, and except for a few insights (in the first 80 pages), the author doesn’t seem to present much in his theory of creativity – the so-called path of least resistance.
  2. Sell me some love – Another red flag for me is when an author constantly refers to other content that he has created – it could be another book, a course or a seminar that promises to give more helpful content to those who are truly seeking. I mean if you have written a book, let it contribute independently of any of the other creations that you have in your repertoire. Thus, coming across the ©, ®, or the ™ symbol in a book is downright jarring. It seems like a cheap attempt to cross-sell older stuff. It almost feels like someone scratching nails on a blackboard. The author drops references to his institute and courses quite a few times in the book. According to the author, these courses have helped creative people… well… create more effectively. Well, I thought that is what this book would have helped me do as well.

After these first eighty pages, I started to simply browse the book, hoping to find something engrossing and salvage whatever I could find from the rest of the book. But I realized that the rest of the book was equally filled with jargon that I could not bring myself to spend time on. And for that reason this book goes in my Abandoned pile for now.

I’m sure there are better books out there on creativity. Years ago I recall I read another book on the same topic, The War of Art. This book definitely was better filled with actionable content. And if you’re looking for a way to give the slump in your creativity a boost, getting your hands on that book would be better thant to simply follow the path of least resistance. 😉

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The Singapore Story

Last night I finished reading the first volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography – The Singapore Story. The book had such a poignant ending that I had to just close the book and just sit for a moment to feel unburdened. After all the months of fighting that LKY and his political party endured against opposing powers, he found himself in an unenviable position – that of a leader of a country that was pushed out of a federation and left to fend for itself, and I felt for him.

Lee Kuan Yew

The Singapore Story is the first of two volumes that LKY has written about his life and political career. The first book talks about how Singapore gained independence, or rather, how it was forced into it. Strange but true. The second book, From Third World to First, talks about LKY’s efforts in turning Singapore from an isolated backwater into one of the most livable cities in Asia. It is all the most impressive because at the time it was handed independence, Singapore was a third world nation, a small weak country with no major industries and no sense of self-reliance. At the time it was dependent on its neighbouring state even for its water supply.

Although there are many inspiring lessons from his leadership, there are few particulars that I liked about the book. First, I was quite impressed by LKY’s grasp of English. It definitely helped that he was schooled in English from an early age. His higher education in England also contributed to this fondness for English. And the book showcases his impeccable English and his expansive vocabulary. I found myself grabbing the dictionary multiple times throughout the book. One only has to watch his interviews available online to see how fluently he spoke English. In fact, it was only later during his political career that he started learning other languages such as Chinese and Malay, in order to better communicate with the citizens of his country.

There are two major events that can be said to have shaped LKY’s thinking and his political philosophy. These two events affected how he designed his political career and the principles on which he built Singapore. One was his time in England where he saw the British (his country’s colonisers) in their home land. And second was the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II. I feel it is not simply a coincidence that some of the most vivid and harrowing chapters of the book are that of LKY’s description of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. His authoritative streak in his government policies probably came from his observation of his oppressors and adoption, in parts, of their methods.

The book does get a bit dense in a few places. Singapore faced a lot of strikes in the 1950s, notably of which were the Hock Lee bus riots. Effectively, this period was also the time when LKY’s legal career took off. But I found that the author spent a lot of time describing these strikes, and how LKY helped the students and workers get their due against the establishment. Later on in the book, the author also describes in painful detail the tension and power-play between the communists parties of both Singapore and Malaysia and LKY’s own political party, the PAP.

By the time the Malaysian PM pushed him out of the Malaysian Federation, it was evident that they were quite intimidated by LKY’s popularity and his unwavering focus in bringing Malaysia together. There are lots of poignant moments in the book, especially the speech that he gives in the Malaysian Parliament and the press conference he was forced to have when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. One can watch snippets of these events online and it gives a clear sense of the pressure and responsibility that LKY faced at that time.

Singapore today is the envy of Asia, if not the world. And although criticized for some heavy handedness in his governance, LKY has definitely achieved brilliantly what he set out to do – make Singapore into one of the best cities to live in. Although this book does not chronicle how he did that, but it sets the background of how LKY found himself in that position and what events in his life influenced his thinking to turn Singapore into the place that it is today.

If you are a fan of biographies, then you will definitely love this book. It stretches a little too much in the middle. But I urge you to stay with it. And it will help you understand one of the most important and respected world leaders of the 20th century.

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Five genres for background music while reading

Some people prefer reading in silence while others concentrate better when they read while listening to music. Especially if you are in a noisy environment, it can be sometimes difficult to block out the outside noise sufficiently for you to focus on your reading. Sometimes it pays to have a good set of headphones/earphones that can help you cancel out the noise. But not everyone has noise-cancelling headphones at their disposal. Moreover even the best noise-cancelling headphones will not block 100% of the external sound. What we have found that a good choice of background music can do wonders to provide you the perfect soothing environment for you to read with focus.

So what is a good choice of background music? To work for our purpose, music for reading has a few defining characteristics. It should be almost non-noticeable, playing the part of an enabler, rather than a distractor. It should not be too loud or jarring. So certain genres, such as metal or rap/hip-hop are effectively out. It should also not have sudden and broad movements. As a result, I find jazz music to be quite unsuitable for reading as well.

More suitable genres are ambient, lo-fi, chill, classical, etc. Something softer such as piano or flute serves our purpose better. However, strangely, I’ve found that movie (and TV) soundtracks are a great companion to reading fiction. With their build up and climax, they help you become more engrossed in the story. Imagine listening to the Light of the Seven from the Game of Thrones when something big is going to go down in the crime thriller that you’re reading. That will definitely heighten the mood and create a multi-dimensional effect in the material that you’re reading.

Thankfully, one doesn’t need to search far and wide to find such music. YouTube has a plethora of videos that are suitable for each and every occasion – whether you’re lying in the bathtub with a glass of wine, or enjoying a quiet dinner, or simply lounging with your friends. Below are five music sets, each from a different genre that will help you focus on your reading. I have avoid genres such as binaural beats because there’s not much clarity whether these are actually as effective as they claim. You can still try them out if it works for you.

Chill

Boring Work | Beautiful Chill Mix – As the title suggest this is an effective companion to when you’re doing boring work. Of course this is not to imply that reading is boring (how blasphemous!) but that this set can help you focus more on the reading than the music. And the one hour play time is more than enough for any session of reading (You do take breaks, don’t you?).

Flute

Raag Ahir Bhairav in Flute – One of my favourite tracks to get up in the morning to. Simple, relaxing and unassuming. This can be the perfect set to block out the world and keep your mind calm and relaxed as you navigate the pages of your book.

Epic

2-hours epic music mix – As I said, sometimes an upbeat heroic soundtrack is the perfect companion for reading fiction. This mega 2-hour collection of tracks has sufficient energy to keep you turning pages one after the other as you plough through the latest bestseller.

Classical

Classical music for reading – Ah, classical music. Who better than the likes of Mozart, Chopin and the other greats of classical music to give you company as you read from your collection of classic literary fiction. Jane Austen would be so proud.

Noise!

White Noise – Well, Sometimes you don’t need any particular genre of music to accompany your reading. Sometimes you just want to block out the outside world. And what better way to block out external noise than to use a combination of all the possible frequencies of audible sound. That is what exactly white noise is. A combination of all the possible audible frequencies hat the human ear can perceive. And by listening to this combination of frequencies, you are blocking out any and all types of noise from your surroundings, whether it is a baby crying, or a couple arguing, or the sound of incessant traffic.

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