Saturday, February 15, 2020

Book Review: Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind

Why do species like ants or bees – which have been found to have orderly societies just like humans - don’t have lawyers?

That’s a bizarre question to ask, certainly not something you would have ever even thought of before. But if Yuval Noah Harari is to be believed, there’s a reason.

Of course, this book is neither about ants or bees, nor about lawyers.

"Sapiens", as the name suggests, is the story of origin of our species - the Homo Sapiens on planet Earth, and its journey to the present.

It’s a gripping story - racy and fast paced, at times shocking and controversial - narrated in brilliant style as Harari takes his readers on a tour that starts in the heavily infested forests of East Africa some 70,000 years ago and ends in the modern day laboratories where scientists are busy creating fluorescent rabbits and synthetic humans. In the process, Harari covers most of the important milestones in the history of mankind, such as the birth of language and “culture”, domestication of animals, the origins of God and religion, the spread of Empires, the origin and spread of money and the rise of agriculture, industry, science, wars and conquests.

The book is divided into 4 main parts, arranged chronologically. The first part - “The Cognitive Revolution” is the period starting roughly from 70,000 years ago when humans came out of the barbaric age and began to live like humans (so to speak!). This is the period when language was born, humans spread out of Africa and “history began”. The second part starts around 10,000 BC, when humans began to domesticate plants & animals, and formed permanent settlements. The first kingdoms began to emerge, as also written scripts and some form of money. The author calls this “The Agricultural Revolution”. The third part – “The Unification of Mankind” – is the period starting around the first millennium B.C. when large changes swept mankind. Universal money such as Gold coins were born, several large Empires established and Religion originated.

The last chapter, the longest of all – called “The Scientific Revolution” is the history of the last 500 years of the World. It’s a fascinating story – of European conquests to their East and West, of the rise of Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, giant strides in Science and Technology, and how all of it has impacted the life on earth. This is the part I enjoyed the most.

But Harari’s book is more than just history.

In the present day world, we have become hostage to a particular way of thinking. We view our world as a logical outcome of the progress and prosperity we have achieved over the generations. Our views and opinions are shaped by the prevalent notions of what is right and what is wrong, and we all view history with the same perspective. For example, our faith in principles of justice, peace, freedom, equality, environment, democracy and several such ideologies has become unshakable. We believe in them because we think that is how things are supposed to be, that is how nature has created the world.  And anything that is in conflict with our notions is an aberration - a result of a deviant upbringing, lack of education or other such deficiencies. But is that how the world was meant to be? Are we really the homo sapiens (“Wise Man”) that we call ourselves or are we just fooling ourselves into delusion?

In Sapeins, Harari shakes up the very foundations of our thinking, busting the myths of what we think of ourselves and the way we see the world. He finds a discrepancy between our evolutionary success and individual suffering. Mankind has made progress, but has that made us happy, asks Harari. As he says, “Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet, they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it.

And that is what the book does, raising more questions than it answers. Did we really benefit out of the growth of agriculture, or was it – as Harari calls it – History’s Biggest Fraud? Have the modern day luxuries made us happy, or have they left us craving for more? Are all humans really equal, or is it a myth we propagate because it makes us more politically correct? Is history working for the benefit of mankind, or had we been better off had the dice rolled differently at some point in the past? Harari leaves us with many provocative questions that we will be at pains to answer. 

One may not agree with everything he says, but Harari certainly makes one think. For that reason alone, this book is worth a read.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Book Review: Mind Master

Chess is a game of Indian origin. Folklore has it that in the 16th Century, Emperor Akbar played chess on gigantic chessboard “floors” and real men walking on it as pawns and pieces. Yet, there is almost no documented history of the game in India since then. 

Until now, that is. 

As I write this, a different type of history is being made. A wave  of chess enthusiasm has swept the country since the last few years. Today, if you place one Indian Grandmaster (GM) on each square of Akbar’s chessboard, you would fill all the squares on the board and still be left with a GM or two to spare! The number of International Masters (IM) – a title junior to a GM, awarded by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) - that India boasts of now runs into three digits. History is being made, everyday.

But it has not always been so. When Anand started out his career in the mid-1980s, attaining an IM Title was what most Indian chess players aspired for. All that changed one day, when a 13-year old boy suddenly burst onto the national chess scene and swept away the honours.

In Mind Master, India’s first GM “Vishy” (a misnomer given to him by the Europeans, for Viswanathan is his father’s name) Anand looks back at more than a quarter century of career playing chess at a professional level. Dubbed the “lightening kid” in his younger years for exceptional speed, Anand went on to win the World Chess Championship several times, not to mention many other awards and accolades along the way. The book gives the reader a close peek into the thinking, strategizing and planning that went into several of his crucial matches. What were the challenges that Anand faced? How did he overcome them? What were the mistakes he made, and the lessons learnt?  Anand speaks out his mind to you, narrates his story. Though chess is an individual game, Anand’s book also brings out vividly the importance of how having a close knit team of coaches and assistants working in unison towards a common goal can make a difference to the final result of the game. 

The book is not exactly a chronological account of Anand’s personal or professional life. Rather, the chapters are divided subject wise, such as one on the art of remembering, another one on preparing for tournaments psychologically, one on the role of talent, hard work, luck & aptitude and so on. Within each of these chapters, Anand shuffles back and forth, narrating his experiences, sharing  his insights and drawing lessons from his long years in the game. There is the inevitable touch of humour here and there, and often the politics that goes hand in hand with the game. Each chapter ends with a chess position – and a summary paragraph carrying the central message that the chapter contains. I find this design beautiful.

In recent years, chess has undergone a dramatic change, with computers (“chess engines”) marauding the game in a big way, busting the myth of human superiority over machines. Anand has been on both sides of this fence, having started out the old fashioned way in the 1990s and transitioning successfully into the computer age, still winning tournaments in the 2010s. The chapter on making this change from the pre-computers era to the post is the one I liked the most.

The later part of the book is dedicated mainly to his World Championship matches (i.e. finals), such as the one against Kramnik (2008), Topalov (2010), Gelfand (2012) and Carlsen (2013). Anand takes a deep dive into each of these matches and narrates the story that did not appear in the press – the challenges, the hard work, the politics, the preparation and the execution. What the world saw is only the final result. But as Anand says at one of the places “chess players do a lot more than sit motionless, staring at moving pieces on a board”. In this book, you get to see what that lot more is.

Clearly, the book is meant for an informed audience. You need to have at least a basic introduction to the game, to make sense of what is written in the book. Words such as variation, pairings, notation, blitz, compensation or fianchetto are straight out of the chess jargon, and a dictionary will help little to a reader if he has never been introduced to the game before. The uninitiated may be forgiven for failing to understand what a sharp Dragon or a dry Catalan is, let alone why playing 1.d4 instead of 1.e4 in a crucial match against Kramnik deserves an entire chapter of its own.

For chess playing generation of today aspiring to be the Anands of tomorrow, the book is an investment worth their time.

Finally, here is a link to the game that Anand says is one of the best games he has ever played. Enjoy!

Aronian Vs. Anand, Wijk aan Zee, 2013

(P.S.: You can read my earlier take on why Viswanathan Anand is the greatest sportsman India has ever produced. Click here)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: Free Capital

“Free Capital” by Guy Thomas is a collection of biographical sketches of twelve individual investors who have made a living exclusively out of investing in the stock markets. The individuals have varying academic backgrounds and previous job profiles – usually unrelated to investing or fund management, and at some stage in their life have given up regular day jobs opting instead to focus exclusively on investing to make a living. All of them have exceptional track records and have built a fortune from modest beginnings.

The term “Free Capital” here refers to the corpus of savings the individuals have started with, essentially what is left over out of regular income such as salary after meeting day to day living expenses. Many of the individuals have chosen to remain anonymous in the book, with the author using dummy names instead.

Individuals who gave up day jobs to become full time investors

All of the investors have taken a different path to success. There are some who make broad macro calls such as on cyclical industries or commodity prices. Others use a bottom up approach, studying company fundamentals to exploit gaps between price and value. Some are day traders, investing for periods from just a few minutes to a few hours, while there are others who take upto 25 percent stakes in their target companies and put pressure on the managements to change course and create value. To each, his own. The book amply demonstrates that when it comes to investing, there is no One Way that is the Right Way to success. You have to choose what suits your style and temperament, and evolve over a period of time.

Despite these differences in investing styles, it is interesting to see some common patterns emerge from the profiles of these investors. There are similarities in personality traits and even personal backgrounds in many – though not all – cases.

This is not a typical investment book, though there surely are many nuggets of investing wisdom. The book does not seek to teach how to invest, or provide a roadmap for making successful investments.  The book narrates the personal stories of profiled individuals, as brought out from their own detailed interviews and the author’s external research on them. Free Capital is a small book that you can easily finish off in a few sittings.

If you are looking for an inspiration in your investing journey, this book will do the job.