The best Buffet for your money

Mount Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga are the 3 indisputable tallest mountain ranges out there. It is likely on the bucket list of many new and aspiring climbers, working as a backdrop siren call as they hone their skills on lesser mounds.

Book lovers have their own list but this list can never be definitive since there can be no universal consensus on what should go into “the toughest reads out there!” book list. Each person’s list, like the idea of utopia or hell, is personal and unique.

But odds are a 100 book list made by a lot of bibliophiles would likely contain gems like:
    Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
    Moby Dick by Herman Melville
    Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
    The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
    Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

These books are reputed to be very tough slogs and there is no definitive guarantee you will turn the last page and feel glad you dived in. In fact, chances are most of these books will be flung across the room well before the last chapter. A lot of them are wilting in bookshelves around the world waiting for a day when the owner inevitably bundles it into the charity box for donation.

When I purchased ‘Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders‘ on 15 November 2013 (for the pricy sum of £2.07) I was not sure what I was in for. All I knew was that I liked Warren’s way of thinking, his approach to business and investing and I wanted to read more from the man directly, not via a biographer or hired hand. I surely would have done a double take if my future self had told me I would take 865 days to finish this thick fat almost 1000 page book.

 

L2S

‘Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders’ is not a book really but a collection of annual letters written by Warren Buffet, the legendary investor and 2nd richest man on Earth. Each year he writes a letter to his shareholders telling them how well (or poorly) Berkshire Hathaway, the company he runs, did. So technically this books, containing 50 letters, from 1965 to 2015, took 50 years to ‘write’. (Amazon automatically updated the kindle version with the letters of the last 2 years, after I purchased the book in 2013. Go Amazon!).

But then saying this book is a collection of annual letters written by Warren Buffett is akin to saying “History is about some important dates”. ‘Letters to Shareholders’ is soooo much much more than just a collection of letters. Through these 50 letters, Buffet talks about the wider investing and business world and touches on a lot of very interesting subjects, giving the reader a solid grounding on many helpful topics that can stand in as 24 Carat practical life lessons.

The book is especially splendid at educating the reader on 3 topics:

1. Investing: Over 50 letters (sermons?) Buffet elaborates on what being a value investor is all about and how to think like a smart value investor. There are books explicitly dedicated to teaching you investing and they fail at it while this £2 book does in effortlessly. Warren talks at length on how to think about investing and then how to act on that thinking. This alone makes this book worth the time needed to read it. I envy the young reader who finishes it before his 25th birthday. He is guaranteed to have a literally richer life than he would otherwise have had, whatever his starting position was weath-wise. Warren’s 2005 letter has a write up on ‘How to minimize investment returns’. What a tour de force that particular one was. As was the 2013 section ‘Some thoughts on investing’.

2. Business: Berkshire Hathaway buys and oversees a boatload of companies and Buffet wades deep into what specific metrics matter when running and evaluating a firm and which are the dubious ones (it’s EBIDTA). There are many colleges around the world, esp. in third world countries , offering dubious 2 year+ MBA and Business Diplomas that fail to do what this one little book does by itself: Give the reader an unbeatable and thorough education in the basics of thinking like a CEO/Businessman.

3. Understanding the Insurance Industry : Berkshire Hathaway at its core is an Insurance firm and as a Consultant currently embedded at one such firm, I could not have hoped for a more comprehensive overview on how to look into and understand the industry and the myriad operators in it. Insurance plays a crucial part in economies globally and the book gives the reader lessons on how to evaluate the health of the industry and a firm in it. Nothing comes close.

So yes, while it took me the better part of 30 months to finish this book end to end, it was only because one should ingest this book slowly and gradually to let the lessons and Buffet’s wisdom sink in, like sand settling at the bottom of a lake. A beach read this book is most definitely not but you know what this book most definitely is : The best £2 I ever spent.

So go on, jump in and climb this Everest of a book . The view from the top is breathtaking.

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The 2014 Books Review (33 read, only 13 were really good)

I took the easy way out and went with an infograph to tell you 4 books you could try among the 33 books I read this year.

Click on the URL below or on this sentence to jump to the site.

https://infogr.am/books-of-2014-102

Full list of books read in 2014 below :

Book 1 The Strategist’s Toolkit
Book 2 The Dispossessed
Book 3 Life Itself
Book 4 The Martian
Book 5 Old Man’s War
Book 6 A Fire Upon the Deep
Book 7 Badass
Book 8 A Deepness in the Sky
Book 9 The Lowland
Book 10 Brideshead Revisited
Book 11 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Book 12 All You Need Is Kill
Book 13 How the Light Gets In
Book 14 Slaughterhouse
Book 15 Physics of the Impossible
Book 16 The Whisperers
Book 17 Read This Before Our Next Meeting
Book 18 The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty
Book 19 What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Book 20 Skeleton Crew
Book 21 Fuzzy Nation
Book 22 Dreadnaught (The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, #1)
Book 23 The Making of Modern Britain
Book 24 The Age of Wonder
Book 25 Thinking Statistically
Book 26 The Memory Chalet
Book 27 Fooled by Randomness
Book 28 Look To Windward
Book 29 Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places
Book 30 The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
Book 31 From Dictatorship to Democracy
Book 32 Embroideries
Book 33 HBR Guide to Project Management

We were killed by……WHAT ?!?

My one favourite place when in London is a Borders Bookstore.  I have spent many pleasantly wasted hours is their flagship store on Oxford Street.

The third floor there has a Starbucks where you can, after you have vacuumed for your favourite books from the stores’ aisles, order a tall pumpkin spice latte and waste the day in one of the comfortable lounge chairs scattered throughout the store. I did sometimes end of purchasing a few books but I suspect most folks just read the books, bought the coffee and walked away when they were done with the former. Probably the only one profiting was Starbucks.

Here are some facts I was able to collate from the net on 3 related companies :

Borders : As of January 30, 2010, the company operated 511 Borders superstores in the United States….On February 16, 2011, the company announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In 2011 Borders finished 40 years in the business with 19500 odd employees. The last time Borders made a profit was 2006. Its yearly income has dropped by $1 billion in the four years since then.

Barnes & Noble : Is the largest book retailer in the United States, The company operates 717 stores and on Aug 3, 2010, the company announced that its board was considering a sale of the company, possibly to an investor group.

Amazon.com :  Is a US-based multinational electronic commerce company. It was founded it in 1994. In 1999, Time magazine named Bezos ‘Person of the Year’, recognizing the company’s success in popularizing online shopping. It market cap now is $78 billion and revenue is at $34 billion.

Thing is I love Borders AND Amazon and would love to see both of them around for a long time. But in reality, out of every 100 bucks I spend on books, Amazon gets 99 and Borders gets 1. Because Amazon is far cheaper and very very convenient. And also maybe because they don’t waste their money on a bookstore in the middle of Oxford street!

In 1994 (when Amazon was founded) I am willing to bet the CEO, COO and CFO of Borders and Barnes & Noble, along with their core senior team must have been part of numerous expensive ‘annual strategy sessions’, golf retreats and  team building exercises. There would have been people in that group from good B-Schools, familiar with Porter’s 5 forces model. And NO ONE in that group would have dreamed that in less a decade they would be pretty much done. Finished.  And the double shocker would have been the added wound that it wasn’t because of the other guy (Borders vs B&N). Like Coke finding out they were beaten in the end not by Pepsi but by …Airbus (?!)

The top and bottom (amazon, e-books), did them in.

If a $10,000 per day consultant had told the book guys in one of the 1994 ‘retreats’ that they all need to look at their business threat radar for ‘an online book store outselling them soon’ would it really registered in their mental model of the world they knew or would they have laughed ‘the idiot’ out of the room.

Mental Models are our fixed ideas of how the world works and how things should or shouldn’t be done.  We accept these models so completely that we live our lives according to them.  Everyone has mental models, but we call them by other names, like “truth” or “reality” or “the facts.”  We believe them absolutely.

My contention : “We have an unsustainable business model”. That’s a sentence every C-suite occupant (the ceo,coo,cfo,cto..) should put on a laminated card and carry in his pocket.

Hitch-22

Today you are ‘Just Another Customer’ of Christopher Eric Hitchens’ memoir.
Right off the bat I am going to come out and state that this is easily one of the smartest books I have read in the last few years. It is a rich nuanced book that will not disappoint. I suspect you will improve your IQ by about 10 points just from reading this book. Twice. You think (I can see your exaggerated eyes rolling from here) that I jest. I don’t.

Now here is Christopher Eric Hitchens. Before I finished with the book I had a vague idea of what a real ‘intellectual’ was in that sense of the word. I was in no doubt after I finished with Hitch-22. So this is the real stuff. And I will now strive to never mis-apply the title frivolously to someone who does not truly deserve it (and the contenders are many. Just switch to any news channel to see the underserving). Now be warned after you read Hitch-22 you are exposed to a mind so complex, smart and erudite, you will be a miser with the term for a long long time. In my limited frame of reference
I’ll hand it to maybe Dawkins, Dannett. Maybe Taleb and Naipaul.
This book is not a autobiography for sure and saying it is a memoir would, in the most accepted sense of the term, be wrong. Don’t jump into the pond expecting that. It feels (and not in a negative way)
like a lose collection of essays about places, events and people that, at the end, was chronologically stacked by the publisher right before going to the printing warehouse. If you feel disheartened to read it is so, you have very little idea what a treat you are in for anyway. Hitch himself confesses at the end
chapter that this book is a ‘highly selective narrative’. It is. But that is like saying Mozart is a ‘limited instrument artist’

Now do note :

 I didn’t say Hitch-22 is absorbing in the ‘Kafka on the Shore’ sense, although in a way it so was and more. I didn’t say Hitch-22 is gripping in the ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ sense, although in a way it so was and more. I didn’t say Hitch-22 is a page-turner in the strictest ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ‘ sense, although in a way it so was and more.

What is so refreshing is the level of real genuine soul bearing honesty Hitch brings to the table. His
chapter on his mum almost moves you to tears. Here is a man who is not coy or ashamed to admit he is guilty of some base vice, thought or flaw in himself. He makes little in the way of apology but the
very fact that he talks about it so candidly makes one realize how intellectually ethical man you are dealing with. You may not agree with him of everything (and boy does he hate a lot — Mother
Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Islam, God to name a few from a very long list). But I know this too : I would leave the safe keys with him anyway anyday. Here is a person who can be stone cold to his enemies in one paragraph and moved to tears by poetry in the next. There is so much in the book about the latter, I felt a rush of anger at myself and the early schooling years for killing any joy in it. One by making us take TESTS(!) on it. Curse you St.Joesph’s! One irritating miss in the book is how little he talks about his immediate kids and his two wives and one gets the impression that either they did little in terms of impacting his life or they were marginal players on the periphery in the real sense for decades. Which I suspect may actually BE true. The prose in the book is so mellifluous, so compact and so thoughtful I really thought i would, like the overused cliche, part with maybe some limb to be able to pen 2 pages of something like that once in my life. You know those pretentious wine tasting  snobs who make such an elaborate show of taking a sip from the glass, swirling the wine  and commenting on the ‘bouquet’ , ‘aroma’ et al. its a good metaphor though. Some lines and paragraphs in the book bring you to that level of absorption and involvement, where
you really enjoy each line and para and take your time taking it all in. This book can be discussed in the book club for probably a year, chapter by chapter. Here are a few of my favorite
from the book :
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The usual duty of the “intellectual” is to argue for complexity and
to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be
sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae. But there is
another responsibility, to say that some things are simple and
ought not to be obfuscated, and by 1982 Communism had long passed
the point where it needed anything more than the old equation of
history with the garbage can.

Plainly, this unwillingness to give
ground even on unimportant disagreements is the symptom of some
deep seated insecurity, as was my one-time fondness for making
teasing remarks (which I amended when I read Anthony Powell’s
matter-of-fact observation that teasing is an unfailing sign of
misery within)

Very often the test of one’s allegiance to a cause
or to a people is precisely the willingness to stay the course when
things are boring, to run the risk of repeating an old argument
just one more time, or of going one more round with a hostile or
(much worse) indifferent audience.

Totalitarianism is itself a cliché (as well as a tundra of pulverizing boredom)

One cannot invent memories for other people, and the father figure for my children must be indistinct at best until quite late in their lives. There are days when this gives me inexpressible pain, and I
know that such days of remorse also lie in my future. (I distinguish remorse from regret in that remorse is sorrow for what one did do whereas regret is misery for what one did not do. Both
seem to be involved in this case.)

I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified.

It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic. It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties.

To have spent so long learning so relatively little, and then to be menaced in every aspect of my life by people who already know everything, and who have all the information they need … More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation. To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.”
It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
I felt bad after reading this book and you will too. Of the 6.5 billion folks on the overcrowded planet, you realize maybe a stadium full of people have lived a life as interesting, exciting
and so damn alive as Hitch. I am sorry to say a lot of the politics he lived and pens about went right over my head. (…But as proof of prose, it made me go on amazon and purchase Tony Judt’s
“Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” JUST SO I COULD understand his book better.yup. That good) And reading the book was like surfing the net in that I was constantly wikipedia’ing so much
: Spanish war, Cuban revolution, Trotskyism, myriad poetry verses, about 50+ writers and so on. If books are meant to expand the mind I have not come across too many that match the sheer horsepower of Hitch-22. Carpe diem. Buy the book. ps : If you are curious about Hitch, here are 2 starter videos to know the man better :


Just Another Customer’s Best and Worst of 2010

2010 has drawn to a close, the lists and best/worst awards are all being punctually distributed. I am going to add mine to the mix. 2010 was an awesome year and here is to 2011 making it look ‘meh’. Happy New Year.

Here goes the totally gut based unscientifically selected winners …and added bonus for me: Of all the posts I penned so far on my blog, this one I really really enjoyed writing. Didn’t feel like a chore at all.

#Best New Brand I came in touch with in 2010 : Air Asia

Low Low prices. Smokin hottt crew. Sanitary bathrooms. Clean new planes. So I am totally rah-rah’ing behind them for being able to demonstrate how you can be Cheap without being ‘Cheap’. Something demonstrated by Air India and American Airlines to be astoundingly easy.

Take Away : Being able to convincingly demonstrate an inverse link between the product experience and its pricing is an art and Air Asia is looking like Van Gogh.

#Best Value For Money : Street food in Bangkok

Back here, low-priced food means you are also involuntarily participating in heath roulette. You may or may not get sick you brave gambler you. Not so in Bangkok. Low prices only meant you just didn’t get the silverware with the food. All else was totally top notch.

Take Away : being able to demonstrate how you can be low-priced without being unhealthy/poisonous.

#Best FREE service: The Staten Island Ferry

There is no better way to glimpse Lady Liberty, enjoy the view of Manhattan from a distance AND  avoid the hassles of a touristy trap up close than this surprisingly free ride to Staten Island and back on the ferry. The ferry is clean, well maintained and run by a decent crew.

Take Away : being able to demonstrate how you can be govt owned and run without being dirty or inefficient.

# Best Customer Service Experience : Virgin Atlantic, @London Heathrow.  Missing a Virgin Atlantic London Delhi flight by 9 minutes and getting a NO CHARGE  NO HASSLE next day ticket in the next 9 minutes. Stupid me did not catch the name of the customer service rep girl. But she made her airline look bloody darn good. Take Away : Being able to demonstrate all airline reps are not hostile surly harridans.

#Best FREE city experience : Courtesy the municipality of Paris. Free deck chairs at the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre in the summer, allowing anyone to park their tired selves and just enjoy straight line views of the Arc De Triomphe and the Eiffel.Take Away : Sometimes all the citizens want is a good view and a place to see it from.

#Most Unexpected Good Meal : A very unassuming bakery in Rome that served the most orgasmic lasagna I have yet tasted. And a price that did not do justice to what the dish managed to do to your tongue and mood.  For those interested, this one is right at the entrance of the Battistini Metro Station. A bowl of mussels at a restaurant near the Nation metro St in Paris comes a close second and beaten because the price was too damn low for the lasagna.

#Most anticipated Good Meal that delivered: Cu Cha (sea food like you will never taste again or have before) and W.A.W (world’s best chicken wings) on Jalan Alor St. I could just park permanently at these two places, drink the local beer and watch the Kuala Lumpur crowd all day till the inevitable heart attack from obesity gets me.

#Worst Rip off at a tourist trap : The visually inviting street side restaurants near the common tourist spots in Rome. Justyna and I were parted with what was a frightening amount of our  euros for what was a very bland and forgetful meal near the Pantheon.

Take Away : Location.Location.Location. We get it. But don’t just stop there. Work on the damn product!

#Best FREE quality Performances : Edinburgh Festival, August 2010. The theater was the street and by God, what theater!

#Best FREE sublime experience : Crowd watching parked on the fountain footsteps near the Pantheon, Rome. The people, the passing performers and sheer variety of tiny interesting people related episodes unfolding before you is a treat, made sweeter by the fact it’s totally absolutely free.

#Product I(we?) have the most ‘love hate’ relationship with.

#Most Welcoming Experience : Being allowed INSIDE Harvard Business School’s famed Baker Library AND its underground book depository collection without being a student or bring escorted by one. The whole campus had a vibe around ‘visitors’ that was so amazingly friendly for a place of its size and importance. Local 2 bit malls’ here are 100 times more paranoid, brooding and hostile to the casual visitor.

Take Away : For proving importance CAN have a inverse relationship with security theater vs a direct one.

#Most reliably consistent product : The BlackBerry Bold 9000. Dropped it in snow, concrete, puddles, from a height plus a myriad other abuses and it just keep on getting and diligently sending them emails. BlackBerry…oh how I love thee.

Take Away : sometime being a hedgehog that does one thing very well and consistently is all a user wants,needs and requires of a product. When commercially profitable, pander to the instinct if you can.

#Most irritating company to deal with as a customer either by telephone or on their website : Lloyds Bank!

#Most overpriced service/product not worth repeating : the GMAT exam as ‘sold’ by gmac.

#City that quite doesn’t deliver : Singapore. It’s a fantastic city but feels a tad too sterile and unimaginative. But I am still going to say I am a fan. Sue me for the contradictions.

#Most stunning good discovery : At the ‘will be crowded soon’ I.G.I-T3 Food Court : My travel buddy and I came across this food joint. Best fries ever. Name ? Like that best burger episode from HIMYM, I do NOT remember. ‘Four’ something . If you know which place i refer to, gimme a shout.

#Best website you probably don’t know about on the net : www.couchsurfing.com~ the experience it encourages will solve so such of all that is wrong out there in the world and as a bonus, will give its users one hell of an eye-opening experience in the process. Huge fan. Second Spot :  www.AirBnB.com. Just plain works as advertised on the tin. I paid 900 rupees (=$18) a day for a 3 bedroom flat all to myself in Budapest.

#Experience I regret rushing through : The Met in NYC and the Louvre in Paris. I made the cardinal sin of seeing them in a hurry. Shame on me.

#Best author discovered this year : Ouch. This one is close. So I will (because I can!) award it to two geniuses I stumbled onto this year : V.S.Naipaul. Christopher Hitches.

And now the GRAND Prizes….

###Product of the Year : Amazon Kindle.Where do I even begin. Yes, I am a bibliophile and so it may feel nerdy to vote for this but here is the kicker: This year I ALSO came into an iPhone 3G and the latter doesn’t hold a candle. And that IS saying something, considering the rabid fans and press apple enjoys. From the physical product to the reading experience to the ease of purchase and download of books, this 200 gms baby is a true game changer. It has actually fuelled one of my resolutions to have NO physical books in 5 years. Move everything to this tiny marvel, an ode to all this is right about technology.

###Location of the Year : Soi Rambutri St, Bangkok.

There is, on this venerable street, a restaurant that spills over onto the street with a sheesha seller near by (order the double apple flavor) This place is by policy and open boast: NEVER closed. From early every evening till very very late at night (4 am), if you are looking for the experience to cherish : just get your mates, order the double apple sheesa from Rahul, a few bottles of chilled Singha beers and just sit back for the world’s best ‘lounge music + street fashion show’ combo experience. And end it with a non-sleazy massage at the myriad options nearby. Welcome to the good life. no riders. no big bill at the end.

###Experience of the Year : Paris.

To watch the Eiffel light up at midnight, with your gf, on your birthday, on a anchored boat on the Seine that you surreptitiously sneaked into at midnight, with beers and pizza, under a cool evening. Hard to top. But then…..would you really want to ?

(2011 Update : The winners of the 2011 ‘awards’ are here)