Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Well, after a long break where I spent most of my time driving a strategic priority project towards completion at work, I am back to spend time talking about my favorite topics. I have recently experimented with video blogging and this is my first attempt at it.

I read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond several months before but never got a chance to share my viewpoint on it. Now, I have tried to express some of my opinions in the form of a video blog. A lot to work on for me, but at least I have given it a start.


Book Review: Autobiography of a Yogi – A Story of Mysticism and Spirituality

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda

Reading through the pages of the book “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda is like a magical journey through times past, present and uknown! A journey that describes the pursuit of a yogi towards God realization and the adventure he embarks upon in a mystical India that is relatively diminishing over time.
The yogi’s tale is a very engaging account of how the science of Kriya yoga was initiated by a God saint “Babaji” (and originally by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita) and passed on to his mortal disciples who in turn carried on the tradition of passing this art to the following generations, in turn becoming masters in their own right.
The biggest challenge with anything that the human senses cannot easily perceive becomes unscientific as per the modern world. Walking along this trend, it is very difficult to ascertain the “truth” or “reality” of the various superhuman and God-like saints Swami Yogananda talks about. Nevertheless, it is very comforting to know that there have always been people on this earth renouncing materialistic gains and seeking unison with their spiritual self.
The book as such however meanders into areas that makes one doubt the seriousness of the Kriya yoga initiative. The Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) founded by the Yogi in the US is described in grand details- materialistic acquisition of property the exotic locations of the Pacific West. Sometimes, the book seems more like a sales pitch for Christians to join the SRF. However, I liked the subtle references to Christ’s sayings in the Bible, the yogi’s interpretation of them, and how all spiritual teachings were meant to be the same for the entire people of the World.
No matter what mistakes a skeptical human mind can come up with, there were unique perceptions of the yogi on some topics that were a delight to read. He laments on how the true form and value of education embedded in the ancient guru-shishya form is lost in today’s world. Education by rote has become the order of the day and there is no genuine pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. His comments on India’s misinterpreted history and true wealth (spiritual superiority) also delves into how misguided Historians created an Aryan invasion “theory” to discredit its unique past.
The yogi also studies the power of human beings in achieving superhuman capabilities for non-materialistic purposes. His explanation of some of the abilities of yogis to materialize objects out of thin air is fascinating. The base theory that objects are made of atoms, packed into matter and emanating energy is used as a basis for explaining how certain highly trained yogis (who control prana) could recreate the same objects from thin air by rearranging those atoms. He also delves into the Law of Miracles by explaining how certain yogis can materialize themselves in different places at the same time and as and when they wanted.
Quoting straight from the book, “Einstein proved that energy in any particle of matter is equal to its mass or weight multiplied by the square of the velocity of light. The release of atomic energies is brought through annihilation of these material particles. The velocity of light is 186000 miles/sec. Only a material body whose mass is infinite can equal the velocity of light! Great yogis achieve materialization and de-materialization by utilizing this concept of light to manifest themselves in any form they want – their mass is infinite.” All this has supposedly been explained in the acient texts of the vedas. According to the yogi, “The Law of Miracles is operable by any man who has realized that the essence of creation is light”!
Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda has indeed opened up a new insight into a forgotten history and lost cause. I’m not sure how the Self Realization Foundation is truly working today to help people use Kriya yoga (never explained anywhere in detail) as a path to human upliftment, but the yogi’s biography is worth knowing about. It is definitely delightful to read the life account of people who came and left the Earth with a unique purpose in mind.


Book Review: Greed and Glory on Wall Street – Kids on the Loose!

Greed and Glory on Wall Street by Ken Auletta

I recently completed reading “Greed and Glory on Wall Street” by Ken Auletta. Set in the 80s, this book has already been reviewed by many over the years. Although decades old, this book is still an interesting read, especially the final chapter that talks about lost glory and the changing face of capitalism. It is interesting to note that, given the new fate of Lehman Brothers, it doesn’t surprise one that Investment Banks have been a symbol of “desperate greed” since ages. Desperate since experts put the blame on a changing society and growing complexity in capitalism as the reasons for such greed.

The author is definitely impartial in analyzing happenings that led to the then collapse of Lehman Brothers in 1984. However, throughout the narrative, there definitely was a sense that the truth is still hidden somewhere in between. After all, the people who interviewed must have planned out a strategy for keeping their names intact. Anyways, it’s exciting to understand how the job of “raising money” can be so convoluted in reality. The fact that it’s just a bunch of gluttonous individuals managing that process for an entire nation (or world depending on how one sees it), makes it all the more shocking. The mess in Ken Auletta’s version of Lehman Brothers is just one such example. A bunch of fighting kids with a singular motive to get rich quickly, empowered by a system that promotes easy handling of money, led by a management that believes only in making money, can only be nothing but a perfect recipe for disaster. It’s interesting to note that when people in Main Street don’t get a hold of how they are getting rich, they obviously can’t raise their voices against what self-proclaimed “bracket” firms in Wall Street bulging with money are up to.

This book never gives a clear picture of who the culprit was in orchestrating the demise of Lehman Brothers. In fact, I felt there was none. Pete Peterson, the Chairman, did his best to keep up his reputation as a proud investment banker. Money and fame go hand in hand, and he embraced it dearly. Lew Glucksman also did his part to keep up with his desire to mint money out of selling bonds. While one believed in prestige from corporate finance, the other believed in sales & trading. Nevertheless, both dealt with a board and a bunch of partners, who when combined together, were nothing more than a bunch of kids boosting capitalism and their bank accounts with unimaginable chunks of money.

Just when I was adjusting myself to the end result that Lew Glucksman, was brought down by a board that just wanted to keep its money safe, I read the book “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis. That further changed my perspective on Wall Street banking and what could have truly happened to Lehman Brothers. In short, I would put it as nothing but changing market forces killing the super strong bond market growth in the mid 80s. It eventually led to severe losses for all firms that made boat loads of money creating and selling bonds, led to Lew’s team losing their shirt and of course Lehman, its pants.

In a capitalist world where the rules are meant to be broken, super bright men (unfortunately women didn’t have a recognizable place at that time) with IQs that help them understand how a home loan can be transformed into a completely unknown package of securitized bonds, keep changing the rules of the game. When governing bodies are slow to react (which I feel will always be the case in the fast paced world of Wall Street), a kid who can handle or break a bunch of telephones while buying and selling financial instruments will always call the shots. A 23 year old college graduate will guide the fate of an investment made by a large insurance firm through money sucked from a “not-meant-to-be-understood” health insurance premium it has been charging drug-dependent citizens stuffed with one-a-day pills for a new syndrome defined and marketed by a big pharmaceutical company trading in Wall Street to feed multi-billion dollar blockbuster drug research and become a profitable company.

I never realized money was so easy to get as long as you have a fool that you can take a ride for. The investors in the 80s obviously fell in that bracket. The investors of today may be different, and a bit more diverse (or global as some people describe today), but when they deal with Wall Street, they cannot get a better deal. After all, you make money by taking away someone else’s. Of course, Wall Street gives investors the money they desire. It’s just that as the dollar moves from one hand to the other, a few pennies slip through a small hole in the pocket. The less you feel bad about orchestrating it, the happier you feel buying large mansions in overpriced locations and smoking large chunks of expensive cigars with the arrogant belief that you are the smartest guy on the planet.


Book Review: The “Invisible” Continent – Politics at Play

The Invisible Continent by Kenichi Ohmae
Recently I read a book by the famous strategy consultant Kenichi Ohmae, called “The Invisible Continent”. Although written for audience in the early 2000, it did provide interesting insights into a changing world. A world defined by entities that do not physically exist, but still control the economic direction of participating nations. The book definitely provides insights into how structure needs to be established in the uncontrolled cyber environment, with globally acceptable legal laws defining the ways of the business.
I found the author admirable and highly inspirational, a nobrainer given his phenomenal success at McKinsey. However, what I found interesting in the midst of all the business-economic recommendations he generously provides (without a consultation fee!) to companies and countries in the book, is his political viewpoint on nations. This makes me wonder if a business personality is highly successful only if he can rope in political views to answer business dilemmas!
Nevertheless, what excited me when reading this book was the validation of nationalistic feelings of a Japanese citizen that another author, Chalmers Johnson, had portrayed in his book – “The Sorrows of Empire”. Kenichi questions the bureaucratic stodginess of Japanese political establishments and their reluctance in questioning the unwanted high costs of “maintaining” a foreign army (the US military) to “protect” Japan against its “enemies”! The dilemma lies in who the enemy truly is and why. Kenichi also talks about his association with Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammad, described as a visionary who repeatedly challenged financial markets badly influenced by the West and at the same time promoted investments to allow Malaysia enter the information super-highway. The Asian financial crisis and the crisis in Latin America were explained by the actions of fickle minded global investors (primarily in the US) pulling money in and out of a country triggered by the slightest economic provocation. How the Japanese funds into American markets indirectly influenced it is interesting to learn.
But the biggest surprise I had from reading his book was his veiled attack on American economic policies in an otherwise highly appreciate prose on the American economy and their willingness to make bets on the next big unproven money machine. His take on how the United States dominated the world on two platforms – the dollar and the English language is worth reading. What I loved the most about it from a personal standpoint was that, even before I read this book, I always had this notion in my mind – if you would appreciate a single American who transformed the destiny and fortunes of the country for decades to come, it would be the guy who said – “let’s make the US dollar the global currency for exchange in the World”. This happened shortly after the “World” Wars (I’ll explain in an other post as to why I put the World in quotes) and led to global recognition of the US dollar as a powerful currency in the market. However, my thinking capabilities stopped at that thought and I didn’t have any intellectual inputs to back or further that view. Kenichi has a similar opinion on the power of the dollar and how the country is protected from inflation due to the constant inflow of funds from safety seeking investors (both legal and illegal), a privilege that allows the Fed to mint money without fear of ending up with large unmanageable cash reserves. He proposes a new currency similar to the Euro, a more expanded conglomerate of currencies from participating nations to alter this platform. However, I do not personally see a huge benefit from it apart from displacing the US dollar from its platform status, in turn, reshaping the World as we see it today, for good or bad!
On a final note, there was one aspect of the book or rather Kenichi’s thought process that I wasn’t comfortable with. In all the political talk of borderless nations, an economic system that has no place for politics, a continent that transcends cultural and regional biases and a system of universal opportunities for all, Kenichi repeatedly exposes himself to the inability to hide his nationalistic feelings as a Japanese and a “developed” nation psychosis of partnering with the developed West (the “Euro” nation and the US) to improve the lot of the “developing” World. I felt that references to this inherent belief contradicts the recommendations and feel-good moments that he tries to portray through the Invisible Continent. If the Invisible continent is indeed for everyone to enjoy, why should the skeletal structure of that continent and life into the continent (rules, regulations, laws, players, benefactors and beneficiaries) be molded by the so-called “developed” nations? If playing in the invisible continent is one that favors intellectual tenacity, why should other nations be restricted from framing the constitution of this continent?