Breaking News (Habit)


My thoughts on “Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life” where Rolf Dobelli makes a case for not reading or watching news

In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the amount of news (and related analysis) generated. With the easy availability of 24/7 internet and ever accessible smart devices – every hour is news hour and we consume a lot more news than we were a few years ago. It makes us feel informed; it makes us feel in control; it makes us believe that we understand the world better (or won’t understand it as well otherwise) and hence make better decisions in life. Or do we?

In his book “Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life”, author and thinker Rolf Dobelli argues that news is bad for our health and happiness, is a waste of time and hinders creativity and deep thinking. We should give up news completely.

He argues that news is irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. It feeds our cognitive biases and hampers critical thinking. It is mostly entertainment and does not add any real value to our lives. The content covered in news stories rarely reflects what is important to the reader; its sole purpose is attracting attention rather than educating the reader or bringing to their notice what is important or meaningful. The advertisement driven business model of news companies is based on serving an incessant stream of news stories so you are hooked and are spending more time on them. This gives them the opportunity to know more about you, so that their smart algorithms can serve more additive content. This also enables them to gather as much information about you as possible to have more targeted advertising. The way news is created and served, which is a consequence of this business model, results in it promoting hurried reading and shallow thinking – rather than deep thought and in-depth analysis.

While there are no significant benefits of spending time on news, there is a very consequential opportunity cost. Time spent on tracking news is time not spent on developing expertise in our “circle of competence”. We live in times where deep expertise in one “narrow” domain can result in disproportionate financial as well as non-financial rewards. You are much better off having deep knowledge of your chosen domain rather than knowing, in a shallow way, what is happening all around the world. This opportunity cost is too high to ignore.

If not news then what? For sure, we cannot close our eyes and ears to what is happening all around us. Rolf recommends focusing on well researched, long form articles and books that present deep analysis to help you understand the world better in all its complexities, and has useful insights. Focus on what is relevant and of interest to you. And if you must, restrict yourself to one news publication – that to for a limited time per week. Have allocated “news time” and stick to that. It would not be easy, but it’s worth it.

The news industry is society’s appendix – permanently inflamed and completely pointless

All self respecting journalists should steer clear of news journalism, just as no chef who takes pride in his work would start a career at McDonalds.

Also See: Rolf Dobelli’s Ted Talk: Four Reasons to Stop Watching the News


Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, published by Spectre in February 2020, is available for purchase here


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Man, Machine, Chess: A Fascinating Slice of Tech History


My thoughts on the book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins by Garry Kasparov

In the summers of 1997, I was still in school, that this significant milestone in the history of computing and intelligent devices was achieved. For the first time, a computer defeated a reigning world champion in a classical game under tournament regulations. In May 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue won the six game match 3.5/2.5 against Garry Kasparov, the then undefeated world champion five times in a row. The much-publicized match, touted as ‘The Brain’s Last Stand‘, was the ultimate “Man vs. Machine” event – this time an intellectual battle rather than a physical one. The world has already accepted that machines are much better than us on physical tasks, but thinking and intellect was a man’s domain no machine could intrude. And what better than Chess, a game that tests one’s fluid intelligence, processing speed, short-term memory, planning, pattern recognition abilities and comprehension knowledge, to represent cognitive abilities machine would find difficult to match.

Was it really man vs machine when the machine itself was a human endeavor? Was it still man vs man, albeit, old methods vs. new methods? Was it a victory of Deep Blue or the accomplished team behind it (most notably Feng-hsiung Hsu and Murray Campbell, among others)?

Lot has been written about the match – there are various books and documentaries on this topic – however, this book is as authentic as it can get, direct from the person who dueled with Deep Blue. It starts with the history of chess playing machines, their evolution with time, the improvements and setbacks, all leading to a very engaging account of the most famous chess match ever. All along, Garry also talks about technology and its impact on society and humans, making this book not just about chess, but much more. Also, there are many interesting anecdotes about chess and chess history interwoven in the narrative.

The first match of the Garry vs. Deep Blue saga was held in Philadelphia in 1996. It was a six game match which Garry won 4/2. As he laments in the book, although he emerged a winner, everyone seems to have forgotten the fact that there was a first match and he had won it. The event generated a lot of publicity and, interestingly, resulted in a big jump in stock price of IBM. IBM quickly agreed to a rematch. However, as opposed to the first match, the spirit of the rematch was not as friendly and fair. In the words of CJ Tang, the project manager of Deep Blue, ‘we are not conducting a science experiment anymore. This time we are just going to play chess’. There was too much on stake for IBM, and Garry has accused them of bending a few rules of fair play to help their cause. Garry has clearly and amply articulated his dissatisfaction over the conduct of IBM in the book. Genuine or is he a sore loser?

It has been over 20 years since Deep Blue defeated Garry. Machines have come a long way. Recently, IBM’s Project Debater took part and performed very well (did not win though) in a debate with a human debate champion. Watson’s win in Jeopardy is well known. Every day, we hear the news of smart machines performing more and more cognitively demanding tasks. Intelligent machines are not an if anymore, we ought to think about when and how of them now. Human creativity and purpose combined with the almost infinite capabilities of smart machines can turn our grandest dreams into reality.

Well, ‘machines cannot dream, even in sleep mode’. At least not yet.

Garry Kasparov talking about his book Deep Learning in Google


Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, published by John Murray in April 2018, is available for purchase here


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Book Review: Doing Justice by Preet Bharara


Preet Bharara, former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is well known for the prolific and high profile prosecutions during his tenure. He went hard against public corruption, mafia, insider trading and other financial frauds. He prosecuted nearly 100 wall street executives and several current and former elected officials. One of his cases which gathered a lot of publicity in India was the insider trading case against Rajat Gupta, the former chief of Mckinsey. (Rajat Gupta details out his side of the story in his book Mind without fear)

After President Trump fired him as he refused to resign, Preet now runs a very successful podcast and has written Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thought on Crime, Punishment and the Rule of Law – a sort of memoir of his time as the district attorney. In his own words, he means this book to be “guide to justice generally, not only for practitioners, but for real people who strive and struggle in their homes and offices to be fair and just” I found it not only an excellent collection of interesting legal case studies, stitched together to explain concepts of law, truth, justice and punishment, but also a fine book on how to be a good leader, how to take difficult decisions, how to seek the truth, actively avoiding prejudices and remaining objective and the importance of principles in one’s conduct.

The book is divided into four sections: Inquiry, Accusation, Judgment and Punishment, each section representing a key concept in the legal justice process. Using personal anecdotes, case stories, and his own analysis, Preet gives a comprehensive overview of the various aspects of the prosecution process, the challenges, the pitfalls and the moral dilemmas behind key decisions. The section on criminals turning witnesses and the related moral and ethical questions is an interesting read. Two other sections I would like to highlight – the story of Baby Carlina and the discussion about what constitutes fair and effective punishment and the story of Rais Bhuiyan (which is detailed out in the book The True American by Anand Giridharadas) highlighting the power of mercy and forgiveness over law and justice.

Quotable Quotes

Do the right thing, the right way for the right reasons. And do only that.

Smart laws do not assure justice any more than a good recipe guarantees a delicious meal.

It is thought provoking, insightful and engaging. I highly recommend this book.

ManBooker 2016 Shortlist and Manbooker Review-thon


ManBooker 2016 shortlist has been announced today. The winner would be announced on 25th October 2016. Which means that I have a selection six of the best fiction books published this year on our reading list and around six weeks to read all of them, review them, and predict the winner (before the final prize is announced). Exciting six weeks ahead!!

Here is the shortlist –

PS: slightly disappointed not to see any Indian names in the list.

PS: It has been more than one and a half years since I wrote anything related to books/reading/literary stuff. I always know that I have been neglecting blogging, but, somehow, in my mind I never assumed that the gap is more than few months, a temporary phase and I will pick up again very soon. Also, I completely missed blogging about Manbooker 2015 (I wrote a lot about Manbooker 2014 and Manbooker 2013). What to say, life happened when I was busy making plans for this blog. Hopefully, would be more regular now.

 

2014: My Year in Books


Last year was an eventful one for me. A lot happened this year – which can be summed up in three simple words – I changed jobs. More than half of the year, I was occupied with stuff related to new job, new profile, new company and its culture, new coworkers, etc. etc. Reading really took a backstage. However, when I look back at 2014, I am glad that I was able to read 24 awesome books this year too. (same as 2013). The difference between this year and last year is that I was able to review a much lesser number of books (just four)

Some books I read in 2014

2014 Books Collage

2014 Books Collage

My thoughts on my 2014 reading list:

Well begin is half done

I started the year with Hercule Poirot – The Complete Short Story Collection. I really loved the television show Agatha Christie’s Poirot (starring David Suchet), and it was this show that prompted me to read this book. I am now a die-hard Poirot fan and hope to read some more Poirot stories in 2015 (esp. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, as people tell me, is the best Poirot novel).

Rediscovery of Gabriel García Márquez.

This year we lost him, and as a tribute, I re-read some of my favorite novels by him. Most notably – A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (this is one of the best love story ever written – I you haven’t read this –  drop everything else and grab a copy)

Man-booker 2014

Of the six books shortlisted for Man booker 2014, I read three: To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (which I absolutely loved – it is an awesome book – see my review here), The Life of Others by Neel Mukherjee (a wonderful book, but a bit too long), and We are Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Flowler (I did not like it very much).

Other Books by Authors who impressed me

If I like a book, I generally try to read other books by the same author. This is how I selected the following books to read:

  • The Unnamed By Joshua Ferris (Selected after reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) – hailed as ‘the first great book of the decade by GQ, I think it is one of the best books about marriage. See my review here
  • Malice by Keigo Higashino (selected as I liked The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint) – Not as good as other works by the same author. See my review here
  • Summer Home with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (selected as I liked The Dinner) –  again not as good as The Dinner

Non Fiction

Just one non-fiction this year – Flash Boys by Michael Lewis – good book on algorithmic trading, but somewhat technically dense – not for everyone.

Indian Sherlock Holmes

This year I discovered Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall – also called as the India Sherlock Holmes There are four novels in the series – The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri 1)The Case of the Man who Died Laughing (Vish Puri 2)The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri 3) and The Case of the Love Commandos. Not literary master pieces, neither as intelligent as Sherlock Homes series or Poirot series, but good enjoyable reads.

Some more Jack Reacher

Somehow, I find Jack Reacher series by Lee Child a very good travel/vacation Companion. I read three of them this year – Personal (Jack Reacher 19), The Affair (Jack Reacher 16) and The Visitor (Jack Reacher 4), taking my total tally to five. I enjoyed all of them, Visitor being the best of the three. Typical commercial entertainers – read, enjoy and forget. I am now selecting the next one to read for my upcoming vacation.

Grand Ending to a Great Year

The year ended at a wonderful note with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. What a book!! Made me jealous of David, how can some one write something so awesome!

How was your year in books? Do Share.

And a very happy new year to everyone!! Have an amazing “book-year” ahead.

Book Review: Malice by Keigo Higashino


Malice - Book CoverI am a huge fan of Keigo Higashino’s earlier works – Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint. I consider him one of the most intelligent mystery novelists of our time, and in the same league as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. It took me no time to decide that I have to read this book as soon as I saw it on my amazon recommendation page.

<Spoilers Ahead>

Detective Kyochiro Kaga is investigating the murder of best selling author Kunihiko Hidaka. He is found dead in his locked home by his childhood friend Osamu Nonoguchi and his wife Rie. Nanoguchi’s behavior makes Kaga suspicious and very soon he is able to establish beyond doubt that Nanoguchi is indeed the culprit. However, Nanahuchi’s version of the story strikes as odd to Kaga, which leads him to further investigation, unraveling the fiendishly diabolical plot by Nanoguchi to not only kill Hikada but to destroy his reputation, his integrity as well his honor.

In a typical detective story, there are multiple suspects, and the detective works diligently, piecing together evidences, reconstructing the  past, keeps eliminating suspects and then zeros down on the real culprit. and this is more or less the end of story. In this novel, there is only one suspect who is discovered pretty early in the novel. But that is not the end, The remainder of the book is devoted to finding the real motive of the murder. Instead of a whodunit we can call this book a whydunit. Kago’s dialogue sums it all – “You may be the first murderer who decided to fabricate a motive before committing the crime”

I have mixed feeling for this books. On one hand, I feel that it is a great book with a clever story, engaging twists and turns, and interesting characters. On the other hand, it was a bit disappointed too as I had really high expectations from the author – the other two books are master pieces and this is certainly not in the same league as Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint. Also, I was not very convinced by the motive and rationale of why the characters did what they did. More than anything else, it was this disconnect which lessened my enjoyment of the book.

PS: My review of Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint

Book Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris


The UnnamedThere are very few books where the agony and pain of the characters haunts you enough to keep you awake at night. It happened to me just twice before – with Saleem Senai in The Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. And with Florentino Ariza in Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris was the third one. It is definitely one of the most provocative (and somewhat unnerving) books about marriage love and relationships.

Tim Farnsworth and his wife Jane are a successful and happy couple – he is a successful your attorney in a prestigious law firm, she is a real estate agent. They love are care about each other, live a comfortable live in a seven bedroom flat and have a lovely teenage daughter. What wreaks havoc in their life is Tim’s “condition” – he suffers from bouts of unexplained, uncontrollable urges to walk. And when the “attack” comes he has to drop everything, walkout and just keep walking till the time he is so tired that he passes out.

Even with all it weirdness, at a very basic level it can be the story of any two people who love each other. Tim’s “condition” is a metaphor for anything – anything which, even with best intentions, is uncontrollable and how it affects a relationship. Herein lies the beauty of this story!

The Unnamed is a remarkable book, and has been rightly called as the “First Great Book of the Decade” by GQ.

Joshua Ferris’s third book – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for 2014 Man Booker Prize. See my review here

Bonus Material:

The Unnamed “Trailer”

Joshua Ferris discusses “The Unnamed” with Asylum’s Anthony Layser.

Book Review: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

“Most men live their lives vacillating between hope and fear,” he’d say. “Hope for heaven, on the one hand, fear of nothingness on the other. But now consider doubt. Do you see all the problems it solves, for man and for God?” – Excerpt from To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour tells the story of Paul O’Rourke, a dentist in Manhattan. Paul is a man of contradictions – he is a passionate Red Sox fan – he hates the Yankees, records every Red Sox game on his VCR, he even have seven VCRs in backup for the fear that he will not be able to buy a new one when the current goes bad, eats the same meal before every match and even travels to New Jersey, checks into a hotel to watch the game outside city limits, if his team is nine or more games below the Yankees. And yet, one of his greatest disappointments in life is the 2004 Red Sox world series victory over the Yankees.

In spite of being a successful and well to do dentist, Paul is not happy with his life – he is missing purpose or meaning and is desperately lonely – he wants to find a “something” which can become “everything” for him.

Paul’s life turn upside down when someone starts impersonating him on internet/social media and starts writing about a group called ‘Ulms – follower of a religion based on doubting God’.

I must warn that this is not an easy to read book. There are heavy religious references, which makes it hard to follow and understand. There a long monologues, the narrative keeps jumping from one topic to another – basically this book requires (and deserves) absolute devotion in order to understand, appreciate and enjoy it. However, there are passages so beautifully written, so candidly exposing the hollowness of today’s world – there is one section where Paul is describing his inability to say Good Morning to his office staff, just a plain simple platonic good morning, but he is just unable to do that – absolutely brilliant! Overall this book, about the existential suffering of today’s world, is witty and intelligent, yet sad and thought provoking.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize 2014. This is Joshua Ferris’s his third novel, after the hugely successful and critically admired Then We Came to the End and admired and criticized in equal measures The Unnamed. He sometimes reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut.

PS: Bonus material – Joshua Ferris talks about the book (In a hangout organized by MashableReads)

Book Review: Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino


Salvation of a SaintSalvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino is the second book of the Detective Galileo series, the first being the hugely popular Devotion of Suspect X (see my review here)

The series revolves around Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi and his friend, Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor who, occasionally, helps Kusanagi solve some of his most challenging cases, and is known as the Galileo detective.

This story starts with the death of a wealthy business man, Yoshitaka Mashiba, by arsenic poisoning. There is one prime suspect – Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane, but she has an iron clad alibi. Working on the case are detective Kusanagi and his assistant Kaoru Utsumi, with some help from Prof. Yukawa.

Salvation of a Saint is what I call as “minimalist suspense thriller”. There is only one suspect, that too with a perfect alibi, very few characters, very few (and very subtle) clues. It is very clear, within the first few pages, who committed the murder and why. And it takes the rest of the book to figure out how!! It is really commendable that the author has managed to keep interest levels high and the narrative simulating enough to keep reading. By the time I was half-way thru, the only thing I wanted to know was how it was done. The book was simply un-put-down-able.

After the ‘The devotion of suspect X’, I had very high expectations from this book and it certainly lives up to it. A very intelligent book, indeed.

For fans of mystery genre, both this and The Devotion of Suspect X is a must read.

PS: In some marketing/PR stuff, Higashino is referred to as “The Japanese Stieg Larsson. This is a very unfair comparison (both to Higashino as well as to Larsson). There is very little in common between the their writings, apart from the fact that both belong to the broader genre of thrillers and were translated to English.

PS: Keigo Higashino’s next novel ‘Journey Under the Midnight Sun’ is releasing on October 08, 2015 and I am already excited about it.

My Most Anticipated “Book-Movies” of 2014


2013 was a good year for movie adaptation of books. We had The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby, Hunger Games – Catching Fire, The Hobbit – Desolation of Smaug, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (although it is not a book adaptation, it is a based on a short story, I am taking the liberty of adding it here). There were some disappointments too – most notable being Ender’s Game (what a great book and what a mediocre movie).

The trend continues in 2014, we have some really good literary adaptations in the pipeline.

Here is my list of the most anticipated “book-movies” in 2014:

  • Gone Girl (based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn): With a wonderful cast (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) and a superbly talented director who knows how to handle literary adaptations (David FincherFight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network), Gone Girl is one of the most awaited movies of 2014. The beauty of the book was the unexpected twists and turns. Now, that we know the story and the ending, it would be interesting to see how David creates an interesting thriller in the face of “i-know-what-happens-next audiences”. There are talks about substantial changes to the story and even a new/alternate ending. Fingers crossed for this one.

Gone Girl

[My review of Gone Girl]

  • A long way down (based on the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby): A brilliant dark comedy about four strangers who bump into each other at the rooftop of a building on a new year’s eve, each one being there with an intention to commit suicide. This book has some really interesting characters, and I am looking forward to seeing Pierce Brosnan play Martin and Aaron Paul play JJ.
  • The Imitation Game (Based on “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges): It is based on the life of one of the most respected mathematicians of all time and the title role is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Any more reasons needed?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

  • The Maze Runner (based on the YA dystopian novel of same name by James Dashner). The book was good, the trailer looks good. Could this be the next Hunger Games?
  • Dark places (based on novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn). Dark Places is probably the darkest of Flynn’s works, which given her body of work, means that it is really dark and gruesome and extremely disturbing. It would be interesting to see the story and characters coming alive on-screen, especially Libby Day being portrayed by Charlize Theron.

And finally, this list cannot be completed without the mention of The Hobbit – There and Back Again (last installment of the Hobbit series by Peter Jackson, based on The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien) and Hunger Games – Mockingjay – Part 1 (the next installment of the The Hunger Games series, based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins).

Which “Book-movie” are you looking forward to in 2014?