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.

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.

Book Review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect XWhich is harder: devising an unsolvable problem, or solving that problem? Ishigami to Yukawa in The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

A divorced woman, Yasuko Hanakoa, along with her daughter Misato, accidentally murders her ex-husband Togashi. Tetsuya Ishigami, their neighbour, a brilliant mathematician having unrequited romantic feelings for Yasuko, offers to help her cover up the crime. He comes-up with a near perfect plan to dispose the body, leaving the police completely clueless about the crime. Ishigami would have succeeded but for the involvement of Yukawa, a friend of Kusanagi, the investigating officer. A physicist, Yukawa is Ishigami’s ex-classmate and as intelligent and analytical as him. What follows is an immensely interesting battle of wits between these two.

An extremely clever, intelligent and well written book, it will definitely surprise you with the way the plot unfolds. It is a cover-to-cover book, very difficult to leave in between once you start. The logic and scientific deduction techniques used reminded me of old classics from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. I strongly recommend this book for lovers of good mystery fiction.

PS: This book has sold a whooping 2 million plus copies in Japan. 2 million is more than 1.5% of Japan’s population buying (not reading, there would obviously be more readers) it, probably making it the most successful Japanese book ever.

PSS: Trailer of Korean movie “Perfect Murder” based on this novel

PSS: Trailer of Japanese movie “Suspect-X” based on this novel

2013 – My Year in Books

I was a voracious reader during my college days at IIT Guwahati. Those were the days when I had ample free time, access to a superb library, and a set of awesome friends who shared my passion for books. After leaving college, due to multiple priorities and other pressures, the amount of time I was able to spend reading books gradually declined. Until this year.

2013 was the year when I rediscovered and reclaimed the book addict in me. In terms of the number and quality of books I was able to read, this year was as good as any of my golden college years. Through my blog and twitter I discovered a new set of friends sharing the same passion and zeal about reading as me, making my reading experience much more enjoyable and satisfying.

Ignoring Kindle Singles and short story collections, I read around 24 awesome books this year.

Some books I read in 2013

PicMonkey Collage

 Some thoughts, facts and trivia about the books I read on 2013:

  • Best Book I read in 2013 (it was very difficult to decide) – ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri (see my review here). ‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh would be a close second (see my review here)
  • Most Innovative book – ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ by Mohsin Hamid (see my review here) – I have never read a second person narrative fiction before!
  • Best opening line – “History is the third parent” from ‘The Blind Man’s Garden’ by Nadeem Aslam
  • Crib of the year: Out of the six books shortlisted for the Manbooker prize, I had read five. The one I did not read, actually won the prize.
  • One that was tooooooooo long – ‘NOS4A2’ by Joe Hill (700 + pages – at one point of time, I was literally praying for it to get over)
  • Deeply Philosophical – ‘Narcopolis’ by Jeet Thayil (see my review here)
  • Most anticipated yet really disappointing – ‘Doomed’ by Chuck Palahniuk – This, I think, is the worst Chuck book ever.
  • Made me laugh out loud – ‘The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson (see my review here) and ‘The Competent Authority’ by Shovon Chowdhury
  • Ending totally surprised me – ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
  • Out of the 24, if I have to select one to be made into a movie – it will be the ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
  • Most uplifting book (it’s actually a Kindle single) – ‘In the Tunnel’ by Takamichi Okubu (see my review here)
  • “Blast from the past” read of the year – Idle, alone, and completely bored on a weekend, I fished out one of my old favorites and an all time classic – “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie. This book is such a delight.
  • Brilliant unreliable narrator book – ‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch
  • Notable Misses: There were two brilliant books which came this year, and in-spite of being on top of my “to-read” list, due to one reason or the other, I was not able to lay my hands on them. These are the “Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson and this year’s Manbooker winner – ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton 

How was your ‘2013 in books’. Do share through comments.

Book Review: The Future of Boards by Jay Lorsch

Note: The following review was published in the November 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

The Future of BoardsThe growing complexity of today’s businesses, rapid technological changes, globalization, and increasingly assertive investors have made the role of corporate boards more challenging than ever before. The success of companies today depends highly on the ability of their boards to navigate them successfully through these challenges. The Future of Boards is a collection of eight essays covering the most important challenges faced by today’s corporate boards. Key topics covered include role of boards in strategy formulation and implementation, CEO succession, CEO compensation, group dynamics within the boardroom, independent chairmanship of boards, and the concept of lead director.

With contributions from some of the most eminent thought leaders in the field, both from the industry and the academia, this book is edited by Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Jay Lorsch, a leading authority on corporate boards.

On the topic of board’s role in company’s strategy, Krishna Palepu, HBS Professor and a leading expert in business strategy, opines that strategy formulation and implementation is the responsibility of the company’s management, and the board may not have the necessary expertise and time to get deeply involved. However, the board should not be passively approving the strategy presented by the management. Instead, they should actively review the underlying assumptions and implications, and monitor the implementation. In the essay “Focusing on Strategy to Govern Effectively”, he outlines a basic framework for strategic engagement which can help board members actively engage in discussions related to company’s strategy.

One of the most important and challenging responsibility of the board is CEO succession. In the essay “Managing CEO succession” Joseph Bower, HBS Professor and author of “The CEO Within: Why Inside Outsiders Are the Key to Succession Planning”, mentions that the best way for any board to manage CEO succession is to make sure that they don’t have to make a succession choice. The job of identifying potential successors and mentoring them is best done by the CEO and the management. However, typically CEOs are reluctant to do this. It becomes the job of the board to encourage them to do so. Once a pool of potential successors is identified, the board should regularly interact with them, access their strengths and weaknesses. This will ensure that when the time to make a decision comes, the company has an abundance of well groomed options from within.

Executive compensation remains the most touchy corporate governance issue today. Jay Lorsh and Rajesh Khurana, HBS professor of Leadership development, in “The Pay Problem – Time for a New Paradigm for Executive Compensation”, question the assumptions behind a typical CEO compensation plan and urge board members to align executive pay packages with long term company results. They also highlight the fact that incentives have a motivational effect only if they reward outcomes over which the executives have control. They propose a compensation plan which includes both monetary and non-monetary rewards and encourages collaborative behavior within the executive team.

Multiple topics related to board leadership structure – who should chair the board: CEO or an independent director, should there be a lead director, and the group dynamics amongst the board members, its impact and whys to manage it – are covered in the remaining essays.

The Future of Boards is not only an outstanding assessment of the challenges currently being faced by boards, but also a provocative and insightful analysis of these challenges as well as a blueprint of how boards should work to overcome these challenges. Highly recommended for CEOs, CXOs, board members, and anyone interested in corporate governance and working of boards.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J.,, used with permission