Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 list of books read

I managed to read 52 books this year despite a heavier than usual work schedule. What did I sacrifice to read more? Nothing that I would have missed anyway. Instead of logging on to social media apps (I deleted them), and reading short news articles from websites, I just used my handphone to read ebooks. My reading habits had changed a little since I had a kid because I couldn't sit down and read for extended hours, so a handphone with an ebook reading app would be more than sufficient to occupy those waiting times that pop up every now and then.

Of the 52 books, 19 of them are fiction - that's about 36%. Some people don't read fiction at all, which is like me in the past. I'm quite a late adopter of fiction. These days, I can't tell for sure which is fiction and which isn't, frankly. The 19 fictional books that I said earlier in this paragraph, I had to do some interpretation myself.

Here's the list of the books I've read:

52) The end of absence - Michael Harris
51) Surrounded by Idiots - Thomas Erikson
50) Everything is F*cked - Mark Manson
49) The Rosie result - Graeme Simsion
48) The Redemption of Time - Baoshu
47) Permanent Record - Edward Snowden
46) Gulp - Mary Roach
45) Montauk Project - Preston B. Nichols / Peter Moon
44) Ball lightning - Liu Cixin
43) Uncle Hitler - Alfred Nestor
42) Efficiency - Wall Street Playboys
41) How to raise successful people - Esther Wojcicki
40) Death's End - Liu Cixin
39) The Dark Forest - Liu Cixin
38) The Three-Body problem - Liu Cixin
37) Educated - Tara Westover
36) Band of brothers - Stephen E Ambrose
35) The whole-brain child - Daniel J. Siegel
34) Miniatures - John Scalzi
33) Total recall - Arnold Schwarzenegger
32) The paper menagerie and other stories - Ken Liu
31) Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman
30) The Compound Effect - Darren Hardy
29) Broken Stars - Ken Liu
28) The great cholesterol myth - Jonny Bowden
27) Lies my doctor told me - Ken D. Berry
26) Ms Bixby's last day - John David Anderson
25) Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig
24) Thinking in Bets - Annie Duke
23) HIIT explained - James Driver
22) Solitude - Michael Harris
21) American Gods - Neil Gaiman
20) Leaders eat last - Simon Sinek
19) The Time paradox - Philip Zimbardo / John Boyd
18) The Fifth Risk - Michael Lewis
17) The hour between dog and wolf - John Coates
16) Hero - R.A. Salvatore
15) Crash course - Kim Bearden
14) The Singapore Blue Chips - Nandini Vijayaraghavan & Umesh Desai
13) Little soldiers - Lenora Chu
12) Flatland - Edwin. A. Abbott
11) The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman
10) Keep calm and mother on - Pauline Loh
9) Archmage - R.A. Salvatore
8) How to write a sentence - Stanley Fish
7) The smartest kids in the world - Amanda Ripley
6) Laws of Human Nature - Robert Greene
5) Maths learning difficulties, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia - Steve Chinn
4) Head on - John Scalzi
3) Shoe Dog - Phil Knight
2) Neither Civil nor Servant - Peh Shing Huei
1) Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf - R.A. Salvatore

I'll try to shorten the huge list into just 5 books that I would recommend to people who are following my book list.

1. Neither Civil Nor Servant - Peh Shing Huei

This is a book about Philip Yeo, one of the important people who built up Singapore as we know today. He was in various portfolio, including the set up known as ST engineering today, EDB, SPRING, ASTAR etc. He is an engineer, first of all, and someone who can be relied on to solve problems, even if it means breaking a few rules and knocking a few heads on the way there! It is a thoroughly joyful read if only to see how much problems Singapore is saddled with in those important years after independence and trying too hard to survive. I don't know why, but as I get older, I wanted to find out more about this home that I've been living for so many years. I will read this along with Goh Chok Tong's and Lee Kuan Yew's books, just to have a good overall grounding of the history straight from the horses' mouth. Even though he is one of the greats in Singapore who managed to push things through, I think working for him will be a nightmare.

2. Little Soldiers - Lenora Chu

This book is highly recommended by me. It's about how a pair of Chinese parents who migrated to the US, had a daughter who is raised in the US and essentially an American and then going on to have kids who are subsequently back in China again for their education. One complete cycle. It talks about how the education system is like in China, and always in contrast to other nations, specifically in the US. This book is interesting to me because it makes me think about the good and the bad in each system, the straitjacket authoritarian Chinese education system vs the laissez-faire self-directed play to learn style in most Western education system. This book is so interesting that I passed it to my wife to read. And she agrees, which is rare. Personally, I think my style of teaching is more towards China's disciplinarian no-nonsense stuff, while my wife is more towards the Western play-learning style. Between us, hopefully, our kid will get the best of both worlds, haha

3. The Fifth Risk - Michael Lewis

I like all books by Michael Lewis. Okay, to be honest, most books. I don't like his "The New New Things: A Silicon Valley story", but this book is not like that. "The Fifth Risk" talks about the things that we can't imagine that will harm us. Sounds a little like the concept of black swan, isn't it? I think I can divide this book in two parts. The first part being how US president Donald Trump came unexpectedly into a position of power and started, should we say, commercializing the works of different agencies. The heads of these government agencies get replaced by his loyalists, who started upending the good work done by previous officeholders. Maybe 'destroying' is a better word than 'upending'. The second part talks about the weather, and how using big data released for free by the Obama Administration had made prediction less of a random guess. Guess what? It's no longer for free now that the head of the country is changed. Like the other books he wrote, Michael Lewis has a knack of making you interested in things that you are not even remotely interested in the first place.

4. The Time Paradox - Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

A very insightful book that introduces a new model of thinking for me. We are all familiar with the MBTI test on our personality, but what if our personality is based on time? The authors introduce 6 time perspectives - past positive (focuses on past tradition, values history and cultural inheritance), past negative (focuses on past negative events), present-hedonistic (life of the party, epicurean, love new and fun things), present-fatalistic (believes nothing can change fate), futuristic (sets goals, do month-end accounting, punctual, hates wasting time) and transcendental-future (believes in reincarnation, life after death, karma). The rest of the chapters is about how the different people - pasts, presents and futures - handle different things. I believe financial bloggers are mostly futures, while lifestyle bloggers are mostly present-hedonistic. A lot of messages are preached by the futures for the futures, so for example to prevent teenage pregnancies (the majority are the presents), the advice is to use contraceptives or abstain. The advice works for the future, but they are not the ones needing advice, which is why such campaigns have limited effectiveness. Wow, that really introduces another model to think about things. I highly recommend this book to another who is interested in psychology. By the way, Philip Zimbardo is the researcher behind the infamous Stanford prison experiment, of how our behaviour changes when we just put on a new uniform and change our environment.

5. How To Raise Successful People - Esther Wojcicki

Adopt TRICK principles - Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness in kids. Each of the chapters in the book talks about the 5 characteristics that successful kids should have, with plenty of examples of how she did it herself. The author had raised several kids who are all very prominent and useful members of their community. I think she is also a good teacher with very strong principles that happened to be spot on after researchers found out years later. Very good read on parenting. If you have kids and is interested in parenting, this is the book to read.

Special mentions

Usually, I don't recommend fiction, because our tastes are seldom the same. But if you're even remotely interested in sci-fi, then you should read Chinese sci-fi. That is the new genre that kept me captivated to no end this year. The original text are in Chinese (read it in its original form if you dare), but is translated by Ken Liu, who is himself a sci-fi writer of quiet renown. It's really fantastic. I would say the works of Liu Cixin rivals that of the greats in the Western world, like Issac Asimov, John Scalzi, Robert Heinlein etc etc

Read the Three-body problem saga by Liu Cixin (LCX) and Baoshu in the following order (as recommended by Unintelligent Nerd), and I guarantee you'll be mind blown by one of the greatest epic science fiction that spreads across thousands and thousands of years.

1. The Three-Body problem - LCX
2. The Dark Forest - LCX
3. Death's End - LCX
4. Ball lightning - LCX
5. The Redemption of Time - Baoshu

Monday, December 16, 2019

Fighting the clutter

Today, I saw the shelves of stuff that I had in my room but had not even touched them for years, and I realised that I had too many stuff. I did a wardrobe clean up a few months ago, and I'm still benefiting from the reduction in clothes. Physical clean up seems to clear my mind too, so I certainly want to repeat the same thing, but this time to my room.

My goal this time is to reduce the number of things I had by 50%. I'm not going to count item by item, but a rough guide would mean that every two drawers I tidied up, I should have one empty drawer at the end of the exercise. That means for every 2 items, I item had to be thrown away or gifted to others.

I started today and so far, I think the results are quite good. I did clear out 2 empty drawers. What did I throw away?

1. Sentimental things like gifts that are given to me by students. This used to be hard, which is the reason why I kept it for years on end. But today, it's not that emotional for me to hold on. I just want to reduce my material possessions. I mean, seriously reduce it.

2. Stationery - goodness..I've kept tonnes and tonnes of whiteboard markers, highlighters, magic pens... most of which are all dried up after keeping for more than 5 yrs without touching them. Why buy them if I am not going to use them, you ask? I didn't buy them, it was given to me by other people. I kept it for so long only because I want to remember the gift. But alas, all these will pass.

3. This last item is not something that I threw away. It was just disorganized, to the point that I can't find the item, hence they are not used. I put them back to their own grouping now, so things are sort of better now.

That took me about 2 hours and I think I'm only 10% done. The hard part is yet to come, which is to sort out the whole stacks of papers and files. Most of them are worksheets. In the past, I used to go to student's place so I have to prepare and print the worksheets on hand. I've not touched those worksheets for years since I have digitalized them and kept as soft copy to print as and when needed. But first I have to sort out which are the ones that are not digitalized yet. Settling this will settle about 50% of the clutter I have in my room, I believe.

The other major problem area is that boxes of tech gadgets that I kept. It could be from games (back when games are still shipped in nice boxes and manual, instead of ubiquitous digital copies these days), computer paraphernalia and mobile phones. This should form another 40% of the clutter in my room. I will likely keep a small part of them but throw out the rest. I know I've not touched them for years, but still, the sentimental part of me makes it hard to let go. Maybe another few years will do the trick.

Clutter feels like a stormy sea to me. Raging, chaotic, a force of destruction

Clearing stuff is only half the battle, the other half will maintenance. I've thought of a system to prevent stuff from cluttering again:

1. Don't buy unnecessary stuff. Absolutely no decorative items for me. Books will have to be in digital ebook format, rather than actual physical books. No choice.

2. Don't hoard things. Some things are cheaper to buy in bulk - I get it. But that doesn't mean I have to get until my whole drawer is full of it, and that I have to take years to finish using. This is usually not an issue for me since I prefer my cash to be liquid rather than stuck in inventory.

3. Throw away the boxes or cartons of stuff that I buy. I tend to keep those, thinking that if there is a need to return, I can do so easily. Perhaps that only happens 1 time out of 10 years? I'll throw them away after 2-3 weeks because if it's still okay by then, it should be okay. This extends to paper bags too. I really hate shopping centres during the festive season. I bought a Moleskine organiser from Tangs yesterday and they gave me a very nice carrier with all the Christmasy feel. I hate them. I want to throw but my wife will resist. Next time, I should strive not to even take it.

4. Sort out the things you brought/bought from outside into your home immediately. If not, it'll be there for weeks, then months, then years. This follows my mailbox letters organising system. Every letter I get will be acted upon immediately. If it's bills, I either put a reminder or pay them on the same day. If it's notification, I will read and act on it or archived for future use. If it's an advertisement, it will not even be brought into my home. If it's stocks related, like company annual reports (god, I hate those), I will browse through them and throw them out. If I can opt not to have it, I will.

I believe I can do this in less than 2 weeks, just before the new year 2020 is up. And what a great way to start the new year with a lot of space and room to breathe, and for new possibilities to happen.

Updates: From now on, this blog will not be spread by me in any way. I do not wish to hide it by keeping it private, yet I do not see the point of it being popular and well-read anymore. Gone are the days that I'll keep it circulated in my social media to get more people to know. It had been fun and I've earned a few cups of coffee and tea during that time, but I think it's time to move on to the next phase. Similar to my own journey towards financial freedom, this blog will also mirror that journey to be quiet, contemplative and reflective of my internal journey. I've been writing, on and off, since 2006 and I've no intention to stop. Perhaps there'll be more 'off' than 'on' these days, but I'll be around. Have great health, great relationship and great wealth.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Reflection of the year 2019

I promised that I will write a bit more in-depth about the year 2019, qualitatively instead of quantitatively. I shall attempt it here. It's always good to reflect on what had happened in this year, learn from the lessons and make new mistakes in the future. I last made a self-reflection for the year 2018 here. I'll try to give a grade for different themes. My grading matrix is like this: 4 categories, namely Finance, Mind, Body and Spirit. Here goes:

This year my networth increases by about 100k, boosted by higher active income. I had quite a good year with more group lessons, so my income got boosted more than average. On the investment front, STI is up pretty much and as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Time-weighted returns is a modest 11.8% vs STI's 6.62%. Okay lah. At this stage, I'm more interested in accumulating enough capital to have a high potential dividend income to prepare for the future when I have to scale down on my active work. The current target is 500k investible cash plus the invested amount. I've a shortfall of about 120k, so I think I should be able to reach that target in 2 to 3 years. If the stock market crashed 50%, then it's a different story of course, haha

Without really tracking closely, I also realised that my dividends from companies + all interest-bearing accounts + income from non-active work, adds up to about 1.2k per month. That is the goal that I had set like 5 yrs ago. Even after subtracting some income that I think are non-recurring, it is still about 1k per month. This means that the plan that I had started 5 yrs ago is starting to bear fruit. I'm very happy about that. 1k per month is about the mortgage (for my half) that I had to pay per month, so it's a huge load off my mind since it is the single biggest debt, and hence worry, that I have currently.

Finance: 10/10

This year I read a lot of books and discovered a new genre to delve into. At present, I had read 50 books, so I should be able to come close to my target of 52 books. I read more because, in the earlier part of the year, I borrowed a lot more physical books from the library in order to show my son that reading is something enjoyable and it's what we do at home. From the book tearing enfant terrible earlier in the year, he progressed to someone who will pick a book up on his own, flips through the pages and tries to read aloud (like us when we are reading to him). I think it's a terrific improvement in that aspect.

The new genre that I discovered this year is Chinese Sci-fi, particularly the works of Ken Liu and Liu Cixin. Mind-blown. I'll do a proper post on the books I've read in the near future, and will also recommend some of the better books from the whole list.

I started learning the piano this year too. I've always said that I wanted to learn how to play the piano, but my 'excuse' is that I'll wait till my son wants to learn so that I can learn together with him. One day, I asked myself what is stopping me from learning right now? Nothing. So I went ahead to buy a weighted digital piano, signed up for Udemy, and started learning. It's slightly more than 1 month already and I'm practising every day for about an hour, regardless of how sucky I am. Learning something new is quite a good experience since it puts me in beginner mode. Very humbling experience.

Mind: 10/10

This year, after Chinese New Year, I bought a Fitbit charge 3 and started exercising every morning, unless I'm ill or otherwise occupied. I've been keeping to that routine for nearly 10 months and I think it is sustainable. It's the longest near-continuous exercising regime that I had ever begun, and I think it's a great start. If I'm sick, I'll just walk for an hour. I started reading up on HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and started incorporating some of it in my exercise too. If you see me cheong-ing up and down a hill in Bedok Reservoir in the morning, it could be me. Hence, this year, I've never felt fitter and more able to run after my kid when we are out. Feels very good. This is probably a life-changing experience for me, and I'm glad to have taken this step.

Started sending my son to childcare earlier this year and was soon introduced to the vicious cycle of illness. It goes like this: son gets flu bug from school, passes around to us, son recovers and goes back to school, we recovered, repeat again and again. Went to take a flu shot for the entire family, and things got so much better. Also took a miracle medication called Clarityne that relieves a lot of symptoms from flu so that I can continue to function properly despite being ill. Being able to function well in spite of illness is part of the routine for self-employed, so carrying it over to the caretaking of my child is just natural. Clarityne is an antihistamine that relieves flu-like symptoms. I wish I knew it earlier lol

I also got infected with Hand Foot Mouth Disease (HFMD) too. In fact, my whole family got it. Thankfully mine isn't that bad. I'll give myself a 9, mainly for the introduction of a sustainable exercise routine.

Body: 9/10

I've stopped doing sitting down meditation for a few years now. These days, if I need to, I'll walk and practice mindfulness. It's a very nice experience and helps to clear my head, especially during stressful period. The interesting thing I've discovered is that even playing on the piano is a great activity to practice mindfulness. It is like I went into a flow and didn't realise an hour has passed. During frustrating practice sessions, I practised on noticing such emotions arising. The only thing that I can't really control well enough yet is when I start recording myself on the piano. During normal practise I'm okay, but when the record button is pressed, things start to go haywire. I start to overthink or just get anxious. I need to work more on that because the skills are transferable and I think it's a great way to practice working under duress.

There's an interesting observation that I noticed about myself. One day, my wife and I are out in a fast-food restaurant. She accidentally spilt the whole lemon tea drink onto me. My whole pants are completely drenched. I noticed that there is a flash of surprise and then anger but it quickly morphed into acceptance. My wife was apologetic but I found the whole situation a bit humorous. It was a strange experience for me because I noticed I didn't react much to that external event, and it didn't affect my mood at all. I think a few years ago, I might have a totally different reaction.

Good progress, I think.

Spirit: 10/10

Attack of Takashi castle - SUCCESS!

Overall, I think 2019 is a great year for me. I lived a lot in this year and will continue to be grateful for what I have and the people around me. In this week alone, I had to send 2 people to the ICU. One is my elderly neighbour, who is in because of severe intestinal pain after a trip to Malaysia. He ended up having to cut away nearly half his entire small intestine out because of inflammation. The other is a family friend who suddenly developed many red rashes all over and had his airway constricted. Both are still under observation in ICU but I think the critical life-threatening period is over. Health is like a bear market - when it crashes, it is sudden and unexpected, often with severe consequences.

In the journey towards financial independence, we often hedge against a longer life, more than our money can last. Remember to hedge against plenty of money, more than our lives can last. Live a little. Appreciate the people around you. Be grateful. Don't regret.

May the new year 2020 be filled with great health, great relationship and great wealth. In that order of importance.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Networth update 2019

2019 is coming to an end, so my usual tradition is to round the year up with an update of my networth numbers and also reflect on the figures to see how the direction is aligned with what I want in my life. In general, I think 2019 is a great year for me. Stock market is generally up and I was working a lot more this year than the last, which should contribute more to my income. But I also have more expenses because my child is going to child care center. How would that affect my networth? Let's have a look.

The last I wrote on my net-worth was back in 10th Dec 2018, here. I'm going to do the same below.

There are so many ways to calculate networth, but I've always done mine this way. It's essentially assets minus liabilities but how you define assets and liabilities makes all the difference. Like in the past, I excluded the asset part of my stay-in property, but included the liabilities portion. Besides the stay-in property, my liabilities also included the car that I bought in 2018, which I'm still paying off. As usual, I'm also not going to include the value of my car in the assets part, but will include the liabilities part.

The assets part include:

1. Cash in my wallet
2. All the money in my various bank accounts
3. Cash holdings under mattress and milo tins at home
4. Money in my paypal account
5. All the money in the 3 accounts in my CPF
6. Money market fund account
7. Marked to market investment portfolios
8. Surrender cash value of whole life insurance plans

Again, I do not include the value of my 5 room flat that I'm currently staying in, and also the value of the family car that I own.

The liabilities part include:

1. Credit card bills
2. My portion of the HDB mortgage loan (total remaining loan amount divided by 2)
3. My portion of the car loan I took this year (total remaining loan amount divided by 2)

Here goes:

2014: Assets: $226k, Liabilities: $220k, Networth: $6k
2015: Assets: $295k, Liabilities: $207k, Networth: $87k
2016: Assets: $351k, Liabilities: $188k, Networth: $163k
2017: Assets: $449k, Liabilities: $182k, Networth: $267k
2018: Assets: $483k, Liabilities: $191k, Networth: $291k
2019: Assets: $560k, Liabilities: $167k, Networth: $393k

Plenty of things to be grateful for this year. The networth figure increases by 102k from both an increase in asset of 77k and also a decrease in liabilities by 24k. The bullish stock market props up my assets substantially, since it is marked to market. Also, my active income contributed to me saving more than 60k this year. Slightly less contribution coming from dividends as I take money out from the stock market but that is kind of offset by higher interest bearing accounts. All in all, the asset part is a great improvement. Liabilities dropped more than usual because I started doing partial repayments of my mortgage this year to reduce the risk of interest rate rising in the near future. I've taken steps to reduce the interest rate fluctuations by locking the interest rate for 5 yrs by repricing my loan, so that is currently still in the works. I've also reduced the duration of my loan to pay more per month. Mortgage is still the major liability that I have, so it's always going to weigh heavily in my mind until I can clear the bulk of it. Takes time.

Going forward in 2020, I expect that the stock market might not do too well. Already more than 10 years of bull run, so maybe we can expect a severe downturn in the likes of the dot com era or the sub prime. Who knows such things? I also don't think my active income will be as huat as this year, since an economic crisis usually follows a stock market crash. I'm not going to say I'll tighten my wallet and live frugally from this year on. No. I will aspire to maintain my lifestyle as much as I can without compromising at all. The hallmark of great financial planning is that things should remain as normal as possible in spite of the stormy weathers. All my defense mechanism are in place, and I remain confident that I can weather the storm and survive, then hopefully thrive in the aftermath.

Same for my networth. In spite of the uncertainties, I will strive to increase my networth. So far so good, as it had been steadily increasing since 2014. Let's keep it rising for another decade or so.

This post is just the boring financial part of how the year 2019 goes for me. I'll do a separate post on reflecting on why 2019 is such a great year for me in terms of various themes, like family, health, relationships etc.