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June 2005

Book Tag

I was thinking about putting up a post describing my favorite books. Thanks to Varnam for tagging me as a part of the book tagging meme.

Total number of books I own: Close to 500. Most of the books I read during earlier days were borrowed from some library. However, after coming to US, I prefer to purchase and collect books.

Last book I bought: Brian Greene: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.  The book does a great job in explaining the existing theories, such as Quantum Mechanics and theory of Relativity (both Special and General) and explains very nicely how they are incompatible with each other presently. But it lost me when it came to explaining the various strings theories that are supposed to solve the incompatibility between the Quantum Mechanics and the Relativity theories.

Last book I read: The same as above. My rate of buying and reading books have slowed considerably as I spend most of my reading time on line. With so many interesting blogs and web sites to read, I am never short of reading material.

Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me:

    I will take a little liberty here with the book meme and present themes, each illustrated with a series of books. Books rarely stand alone. They present an theme that is then carried by or criticized by other books.  Here are the major themes that influenced me the most:

  1. Intelligent Investing

    It all started with Benjamin Graham: The Intelligent Investor: The Classic Bestseller on Value Investing. From reading the Motley Fool site, I become interesting in investing philosophy of the super-investor Warren Buffett. Ben Graham is a mentor of Warren Buffett and other super-investors of Graham-and-Doddsville and after reading this book you will see why! After this, Benjamin  Graham: Security Analysis: The Classic 1934 Edition followed almost naturally. This book is more technical in nature and it will be more useful if read in parallel with a basic course in Accounting. Ben Graham distinguished between speculation and investing: "In speculation when to buy -- and sell -- is more important than what to buy, and also that almost by mathematical law more speculators must lose than can profit."  Ben Graham's investment strategy was more defensive in  nature, nick-named "cigarette butt" for its focus on bargain-basement value stocks. Ben Graham introduced very useful concepts in these two books. One famous was, "Mr. Market", as a proxy for the emotional investors who are  "most optimistic when prices are highest and most despondent when they are at their bottom?". Unlike Ben Graham, who focused on crunching objective numbers, Philip Fisher was a master of locating and investing in quality businesses through research. In this great book,  Philip A. Fisher: Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits and Other Writings (Wiley Investment Classic), he lays out his investment philosophy in a great detail.  Warren Buffett combined the philosophies of Ben Graham and Philip Fisher, and consists of purchasing quality companies at discounted prices, thus maintaining a significant margin of safety. This book, Robert G.  Hagstrom: The Warren Buffett Way,   : Investment Strategies of the World's Greatest Investor, will give you a unofficial but very useful overview of Warren Buffett's investing strategy. I liked this book because it actually laid out out operational details of executing an investing strategy rather than just describing at a philosophical level. This changed my attitude to, well almost everything! One cannot even talk about investing without mentioning Peter Lynch, the legendary former star manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund. This book,  Peter Lynch: One Up On Wall Street : How To Use What You Already Know To Make Money In The Market, is a very practical and useful. If you don't want to spend years trying learn financial analysis like Ben Graham or research companies like Philip Fisher, or do not have capabilities of Warren Buffett, then this book is for you. In a simple but insightful manner, Peter Lynch writes how ordinary investors can profit from the information they already know or regularly encounter, such a from products they regularly use. I wouldn't have dared to invest on my own without this book. Philosophies and strategies make a fine reading and are useful only as a framework for thinking and analysis. However, you need practical examples and hand-holding when you are just starting on your own. This book will give you the confidence and practical guidance that is needed to start your own portfolio.

    I would recommend these books to everyone, even if one is not interested specifically in investing! You need to analyze and compare various opportunities in a cool, unemotional manner. I learned this painfully in my career when I decided to pursue an  opportunity based mostly on the compensation and got badly burned. Had I read the books earlier I would have never taken employment at a company whose success if more hype than reality. At a minimum, I would read and analyzed the annual reports of the company. Another useful lesson I learned from these books is that you should never get swayed by established or conventional wisdom and group-think. You can benefit from the rare opportunities only if you are ready to go against the stream and have patience. This applies as much to ordinary life as it applies to the investing. I recovered the cost of these books (including the time spent in reading those books) thousand times over. I keep going back to these book time and again and every time I learn something new. That's a sure sign of a great book.

  2. Philosophy of Liberty

    As far back I remember, I loved to do things my own way and abhor-ed discipline and top-down imposed discipline. And I was never shy of selffishness. And my favorite  past time is arguing with my parents, wife, friends and relatives endlessly on  politics, liberty,  economics and in general about philosophy.  So, when I came across books, such as, Leonard Peikoff: Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (The Ayn Rand Library, Volume 6), Milton Friedman: Capitalism and Freedom, F. A. Hayek: The Road to Serfdom, and others (see the Reading list, titled, Philosophy of Liberty, at the bottom-right), I swallowed them one after another like a crazy person. I also loved the Ludwig von Mises: Human Action: A Treatise on Economics.

  3. Science

    I was always fascinated by Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy and Computing.  The school and college level mathematics and physics in more mechanical in nature with emphasis on practice.I am very fascinated by books that try to interpret Modern Physics theories and try to connect them to our ordinary experiences. I started with  Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time. I liked it as it attempted to fit many physics theories that I was familiar with into a nice theme. I simply loved Roger  Penrose: The Emperor's New Mind for its fascinating take on artificial intelligence drawing from physics, mathematics and other branches of science. Brian Greene: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory introduced me to the Superstring and other modern physics theories in a very gentle manner and also clarified my understanding of the Special and General Relativity theories and Quantum Mechanics.

  4. Others

These books do not fall into any specific themes. I liked many of John Grisham's novels, such as, John Grisham: The Last Juror, as they are not only entertaining but full of court dramas and legal subtleties. I also enjoy reading autobiographies and biographies for the inspiration they provide and they allow me to peak inside the lives of great people. The last one I read, Howard Schultz: Pour Your Heart into It : How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, was simply great! It reinforced in me the theme that in order to be successful you have to be different and also you need to swim against the tide.

 


Offshoring woes

Link: Is the Offshore Sun Setting? [Fool.com: Motley Fool Take] June 8, 2005.

According to a survey just out from consulting firm DiamondCluster International (Nasdaq: DTPI), several trends have begun to gain strength, merge, and push back at that famous 2004 election-year bugaboo: offshore outsourcing, or "offshoring." Collecting the results of interviews with more than 450 tech and outsourcing company executives, DiamondCluster's 2005 global IT outsourcing study arrives at some startling suggestions on where the offshoring trend may be heading.
For example, 51% of the executives reported recently terminating an outsourcing relationship. That's partly a result of last year's political climate and partly a response to angry U.S. employees who, unhappy at the prospect of losing their own jobs, are giving their management teams an earful. It's also a response to customer complaints about not being able to understand tech-support personnel from other countries.
But the decline in offshoring is also almost certainly linked to companies' growing unhappiness with their outsourcing partners. Firms reporting "satisfaction" with their partners declined from 79% to 62% over the past year. And for that drop, you have to place a lot of blame on the hype. Offshore promoters have been touting promises of incredible savings from outsourcing -- 50%, 60%, even 80%.

Well, it's also about the law of supply and demand. As more companies do offshoring the cost of offshoring rises while the domestic wages are down, reducing the wage gap.


Truth in Advertising

Via India Uncut, this gem from Rule 37-D, Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 2002 (Taken from Law, Liberty and Livelihood, edited by Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava):

Prohibition of Use of Certain Expressions While Labelling of Edible Oils and Fats: The package, label or the advertisements of edible oils and fats shall not use the expressions Super-Refined, Extra-Refined, Micro-Refined, Double-Refined, Ultra-Refined, Anti-Cholestrol, Cholestrol Fighter, Soothing to Heart, Cholestrol Friendly, Saturated Fat Free or such other expressions which are exaggerations of the quality of the product.

Why not apply the same logic to political parties and the Govt. also? Let's ban "janakalyan", "janata party", "seva", "secularism",  and all other exaggerations about the quality of the service!


Leave the culture and the tax-payers alone

Link: AnarCapLib: Give our culture a break.

We don't need taxpayers money to prop up our culture. In a brief piece, Sruthuijit explains why

    The justification for a state-run organisation to promote the ‘ancient cultural heritage of India’ came from two basic assumptions. That the state is the “organised manifestation of people’s will” and hence it must undertake the “maintenance and development (of arts) as one of (its) first responsibilities”.

    Both these assumptions are invalid.

Some of the commenters to the above posts justified government patronage because art is supposed to a non-monetiazable thing and therefore market cannot do justice to it. I disagree completely.

I don't understand this business about non-monetizable  vs monetizable things! Trade involves exchange between two parties. Who said one of things exchanged has to be money? I can exchange one painting with another. A good painter can sell his painting for a good book from its author. What's the problem?

Oh, I see! Painter needs to sell his painting and get food and the grocer may not appreciate his painting (You mean the painter values food above his painting! Where is his refined taste for the fine art?). So, the painter can sell his painting for gold coins and then use the gold coins to purchase food from the grocer. Again, where's the problem?

Oh, now I see the problem! The painter thinks that his painting is way ahead of its time. There is no body to appreciate it and buy it. So, he goes to the King. King doesn't appreciate it either. But the King can always use a portion of his tax revenue (collected by force) to patronage the painter. See, everybody is satisfied! The painter gets his due, the King gets respected as a great appreciator of the refined art (which nobody else cares!). Only one to get screwed is the honest tax-payer. But well there are too many of them anyways (so each one gets screwed only a little) and they don't have a choice! And the best thing is that the King and the painter can have a good laugh about how stupid ordinary people are not to appreciate the high art!


Impact of British colonial rule on India

Ravikiran asks, Was the British Raj good for India?.

Was the British Raj good for India?

I don’t know the answer and you don’t, either.

Some people have argued in their comments that British united India politically. I don’t understand why that is supposed to be a good thing for Indian people. Europe is divided into small nations continously fighting against each other. Various empires came and went unleashing huge destruction in their wake. European went through Napoleanic wars, various uprisings, invasions, World I, World II, communist rule and so on. And inspite of all that on an average European nations are in much better situation compared to India in terms of economy. Most of the European nations have maintained their own language and not taken to English.

So, why do we think that integration of India and introduction of English is supposed to be good for India?

Maybe India would not have been united (politically) as much as it is today without the British Raj. Maybe the industrial revolution would have reached us later. But even if that would have been true, it does not automatically show that we would have been poorer today. Even if we had politically united slowly or started on industrial revolution late we might have progressed faster after that. That is because, without the power of British-given beaurocracy socialism could not have spread its tentacles in India. One of the reason why so many African colonies got screwed by socialism was because socialist elites were left in charge of a huge Govt. machinary after British were gone. That has caused so much poverty that the political disunity and late start at industrialization would have been much better by comparison.

See also Gaurav's post on this. Also, see interesting discussion at

Asymmetrical Information on whether colonialism caused poverty in the colonies. There in comments I mention the reason why British rule caused poverty in India.
One of commentator there had this to say:

"Like that never happened under the native rulers.

Basically, what colonialism does is replace on set of exploitive elites with another. I doubt very seriously that (a few horrific examples like the Belgian Congo aside) it has much impact on the overall wealth of the country or on the living conditions of the masses."

Here is my reply:
I totally agree that the native rules also exploited people. And not just the rulers, but in case of India, whole set of things came together to exploit ordinary masses. For example, casteism. But the reason I believe that colonial rule caused serious damage and poverty is many-fold:
1) British used advanced technology (weapons, railways and others) that increased the rate of exploitation. It is pretty simple. If you can ferry raw materials over long distance you are going to try to exploit more.
2) British did not replace the native rulers. Atleast, not until later stage of the colonial rule. They contracted with the native rulers and landlords to continue and increase the exploitation. They used the existing power structures as a means of revenue collection and consolidate their grip on power.
3) They created a centralized administrative structure which came handy for socialists to continue their grip on power. Without that I doubt if India would have went from feudalism to socialism without going through industrial capitalism. European countries also had socialism but after industrial growth had already taken place. That's why you can see that they have relatively much richer than the colonies. Basically, British exploited and expanded the feudal structures of the colonies as long as they could and later handed over to the socialists. A perfect recipe for poverty.