16 August 2019

The Power of Moments

I was recommended this book in a CEO gathering about six months back. Finally dusted it up and got it in my daily reading routine. Fairly light reading with some occasional bouts of great wisdom. And lots of examples that you can quote in parties to impress folks – assuming you attend those kind of parties! Definitely will recommend this book.

Some of the things that you will learn include how our past memories are not recorded in a very uniform manner. It is predominantly the peak moments, the pit moments and most importantly the transitions (often the ending). As I sat down and thought about a lot of things I remember from the past – and somehow, I remember a lot of them – most fit in that model.

In fact most of the “memorable” moments for us are major transition moments that happen within a short period of our life – perhaps from graduating from high school to having the last child. The book actually talks about how to make life more memorable by creating more “transition” moments deliberately.

Also, you will learn about the “oddball effect” when it comes to committing something to memory – how the element of surprise somehow elongates our perception of time!

There are some great pointers for business too. Especially in the area of customer service. One thing I learnt (thinking back, it makes total sense) is that businesses ought not to strive to create a completely complaint-free service – just an extraordinary service one. Makes you think about the marginal investments in product and customer service in a very different way.

Like I said before, definitely a recommendation to read.

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15 July 2019

Another great book!

You want to impress somebody at a party next time? Ask them to take out their phone and Google “Texas License Plate images”. You will find in the first two or three an image which has the space shuttle on the left top and the half crescent moon on the right top. Now ask your friends what is wrong with the picture of the moon. Most won’t get it. The problem is that there are a couple of stars too close to it. Try mentally drawing the full circle of the moon. It will overlap with two of the stars. How can that be? Just because we cannot see that part of the moon does not mean it is not there!!! You can never see a star in that zone!

Have you seen those road signs pointing to a soccer field? Check the soccer field image. In all likelihood, it is drawn out of hexagons. In fact, if I asked you to draw a soccer ball, you will draw it with all hexagons in it. And therein lies the problem. Mathematically it can proven that a sphere ( Euler characteristic of 2) can never be formed entirely of hexagon (Euler characteristic 0) regardless of the size of hexagons. In fact a soccer ball is formed of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons!!

How about this? Have you seen those marketing pictures of three interlocking gears? Try Googling “three interlocking gear image”. There are lots of them (each gear is in contact with the other two). It may not strike you initially but such a combination is impossible. In fact in your mind, try to imagine that one of them is going clockwise… then the other two have to go anti-clockwise. But that cannot be – since those two are in touch with each other, they have to necessarily be moving in different directions!!

Did you know six F-22s when they were first released (at well over $100M a piece) while making a maiden voyage from Hawaii to Japan suddenly simultaneously shut themselves down? And could not be restarted for hours? (thanks to the mid air refueling planes, they never crashed). Turns out that they had crossed the International Date Line which completely messed up the programs in the onboard computers. So much for spending $100M+ per plane!

This book is filled with such hilarious and very interesting mistakes made by folks in the area of math, engineering and computer science. To be sure, many of those mistakes led to people losing lives and are not funny that way. But what makes this truly an enjoyable book is the author Matt Parker’s sense of humor. Australian born, settled in UK, he brings out all the subtleness of British humor.

This book is all about making mistakes. The dedication of the book goes to his wife… and it is written thusly:

“Dedicated to my relentlessly supportive wife, Lucie.
Yes, I appreciate that dedicating a book about mistakes to your wife is itself a bit of a mistake”

Touche!

Finally, the book’s page numbering is a count-down counter. It starts with page number 314. Which in itself is irrational thinking. (That is the value of Pi – to the nearest two decimal – which is an irrational number). But the book has more than 314 pages. In fact, the page after 0 reads “4,294,697,295”. Some of my fellow computer science students will realize that this is an error every 32 bit chip will make. And yes, there is a story the author relates how this completely messed up a mission,.

Thank you Somshekhar for recommending another great book!

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5 July 2019

The Story of the Human Body

Yet another book that I had to read a second time to get the full import. It is a great book if you are interested in how we have evolved as human beings. Daniel does a great job of taking the reader thru history of time with the evolutionary lenses on to see how human body parts become how they are today.

This book might come as a surprise to folks who believe in a particular diet (or have believed in different diets at different times). The author explains the complexity of the evolutionary journey that we have taken and establishes that humans are not adapted for any single diet or social environment or even one exercise regime.

During that journey, the author takes us thru the Agricultural Revolution which solved a lot of problems but created many more (all infectious diseases started at that time since we started living close to each other and around one location) – to the Industrial Revolution which solved a lot of medical problems but created a lot more (sugar became copiously available, meat started having carcinogenic chemicals and consumption of fiber started vanishing) and then to his predictions of the future.

One point he stresses on multiple times is that Darwinian evolution as it existed (natural selection retains those who can have many offsprings in diverse, challenging conditions) has been overtaken by cultural evolution when it comes to homo sapiens. (We wear shoes, drink coke and drive cars not because they help us have more healthy offsprings – to the contrary, they endanger our lives – but we do it for cultural reasons like comfort, lack of immediate pain etc).

A few other things I personally learnt:
(*) All fruit juices are junk food (because the fiber is taken out)
(*) Not all LDL is bad for you (only the small ones are)
(*) It is not fat per se that is the problem – it is the visceral fat (fat in your belly) that gives rise to almost all obesity related issues.
(*) “What does your gut say?” – that comes from the fact that our gut (intestines) are actually our “second brains”. Consuming the same energy as our brains in a day, our gut has over 100 million nerve endings and controls an incredible number of our activities.

If you find these kind of things interesting, I would recommend this book whole heartedly.

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12 May 2019

Finally, finished this book

A professor friend of mine had once asked me to read this book when I had expressed my interest in understanding how did our brain development wean away from the rest of the primates during evolution. This book by Suzana (Brazilian scientist from Argentina who now lives in Nashville, I believe) is filled with some very interesting findings and conclusions from her research. And a lot of data and graphs.

Although I have to admit that sometimes the writing is a little repetitive and at least personally, I thought the data could have been presented in a shorter and perhaps more impactful way, the end results presented are very insightful, nonetheless.

That said, it is a book where you are bound to learn some really interesting things. Including the fact that we are not the animals with the biggest brains. Actually, nowhere even close.

Or that we have as many glial cells as neurons in our brain (it was believed to be 10X). Those “trillions” of neurons we guessed our brains have? Turns out it is only 86 Billion.

The two most important events in our evolution that made us the most intelligent animals? Using fire to cook was the biggest enabler. And before that learning how to stand up!!

If you get a chance and are inclined to understand a little more about how our brains became different – this would be a book I would recommend…

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14 April 2019

Great Read

Rarely do I read a book twice. Certainly never have I read a book cover to cover and then gone back immediately and read it up a second time. Not of course, unless compelled by some school teacher or an impending test.

This book was that good for me. As again, Somshekhar Bakshi came up with a winner recommendation. I knew of somebody else who would be interested in this book. Sent him a copy in India and after a couple of weeks called him to discuss the materials. We talked for over 30 minutes over the phone on topics ranging from Higgs field to Dark Matter and whether there is a possibility of a fifth force in the universe.

That was my math teacher from school days – Dr. A.N.Roychoudhury!

Where did water come from?
How come the tiniest particles are comprised of mostly nothing (waves and forces are involved) and yet when the hammer falls on our thumb, it hurts so much?
Why is it very highly likely that there is another earth which has brown camels and Starbucks coffee and somebody looking just like me writing a blog?
Why is it that there is a vast part of the cosmos that we will never ever be able to see – regardless of progress of technology?
How does light determine the total amount of knowledge we will ever have?
Does time really exist?
What is the real shape of space? Could it be warped?
If all the known forces attract, how come the universe is expanding at a rate faster than light?

These and many other intriguing questions are dealt by Germany’s popular science author Stefan Klein in this book. The one challenge is that it is a little difficult to procure. There is no digital version and you have to wait for a few weeks before you get it.

For me, it was absolutely worth the wait!

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15 January 2019

An interesting book if you care about healthy habits especially after 50

This year, during my annual physicals, my doctor – Dr. Jarrett – who has been looking after my health for nearly 10 years, suggested I read a book called “How Not To Become My Patient”. I remember I was asking Dr. Jarrett about not just my physical health – which we obviosuly go thru in every annual physicals – but also about how to keep my brain and memory active. As well as focus on having a full life instead of a longer life – now that I am 52 already.

Written by the leading oncologist as well as specialist in palliative care in the renowned Mayo Clinic, Dr. Creado, basically deals with three large topics in this book. The first segment of the book is about what you should be aware of as a patient about doctors and hospitals. That was not so interesting, frankly, to me. The third segment deals with how you cope when you are diagnosed with a life-ending ailment. That part did not interest me either. But I am keeping this book because I think once some doctor some day has that “I am sorry but you have…. and you have … days to live” discussion with me, I might want to read those chapters more thoroughly.

What is very interesting though is the second segment of the book where Dr. Creadon deals with a variety of topics – sleeping, exercises, prayers, time management, stress management, being under the sun, nutrition fads and so on. This was the most important part for me, as of this read. It is focused more on the prevention aspect than the cure aspect.

If it interests you to learn about what you can do to potentially have a higher quality life – specially in the latter half of your life, this might be an interesting read!

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19 November 2018

“Moonwalking with Einstein”.

You are probably wondering what, with my level of ineptness in dancing am I doing with moonwalking and with my level of modest IQ, am I doing reading about Einstein. Actually, this book has nothing to do with either. This is one more of those great books suggested by the most well read persons (at least on relatively abstruse subjects) that I know of – my MBA classmate Somshekhar.

You might recollect that I have been trying to understand how to slow down my inevitable decaying of memory ever since I reached this side of half a century of revolutions around the sun. I even have tried learning by rote anything I can – country names, capitals, NATO alphabet code, periodic tables and so on.

That is when Somshekhar had pointed me to this fascinating book. If you have even the least bit of interest in understanding how our memory works, this is a fantastic read. And a reasonably easy read.

Some of the interesting snippets you are going to learn include:

(*) How our concept of who is “intelligent” changed dramatically as our memory became externalized (we could “store” stuff – on paper, pen drives etc)

(*) What does it mean when we say that we have “forgotten” something? Has it been wiped away from our brain? Or have we merely lost the ability to access it? Or have we lost the ability to access it directly, but if you give us some associated data, we regenerate the ability to access it?

(*) Why we forget certain things we spent a lot of time on – calculus after those long years – but never forget how to ride a bike after riding a few times successfully.

(*) How punctuation marks and spaces contributed heavily to our forgetting what we read.

(*) How chess players have no more IQ than you and me. But they have great memories – especially about board patterns.

(*) How we reach the “OK Plateau” in any learning. I know it has happened to me in motorbiking. It helps you understand why you reach that plateau and how to get out of it.

… and many such things.

Are you wondering if the book teaches you how to memorize more? It does and it does not. It is the journey of a young journalist who went from covering Memory Championships to becoming the US Memory Champion in about a year. You will learn about “memory palaces” and “PAO” – and they can absolutely help you remember whole decks of cards and sequence of random digits.

But, just like skills that win you car races are probably useless for you to drive from your house to the grocery store, those memory skills are probably impractical for you on a day to day basis. (I did use some of that to remember my grocery store list a couple of times though).

But the best thing you will learn is that forgetting is not a bad thing. If we did not, we would not know how to separate the important from the unimportant. That said, if you forgot to pick up the laundry that your spouse had asked you to, please do not use the above argument. The book has nothing to offer on post traumatic disorder 🙂

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8 October 2018

Weird Maths!!

Thanks to my classmate from MBA days – Somshekhar Baksi – I chanced upon one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. If you are even remotely interested in maths and wanted to learn about some wide ranging topics – but not so deep that you will get lost quickly, then this is the book for you.

There are some incredible chapters on the 4th dimension (a great example of thinking about somebody living in 2D always and what 3D will mean to them brings the chapter home), Probability, Prime Numbers (you learn how a great breakthrough in prime numbers was made by a professor while doodling out of sheer boredom listening to a uninspiring talk), Patterns (you realize suddenly that there is no straight answer to a simple question like – what is the length of the coast of a country? It actually monotonically increases without end the smaller your measurement tool/unit becomes!), Chess and even Chaos (how the world wide web has become today “Borge’s library of Babel” – together with all the drivel and fake news).

The chapter that interested me most was the one on very large numbers and the concept of infinity (there are infinite kinds of infinities) and why we trip up while thinking about infinity.

It is a fantastic read!

One problem though. This is not available in USA or in the electronic form. I had to order the paper version on Amazon and wait for three weeks for it to be delivered… from India!!

Again, thank you Somshekhar!

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2 February 2018

On the Shortness of Life

Very recently, a few of us were celebrating a friend’s birthday and the friend mentioned that at our age, he does not look forward to birthdays since that reminds him he is one year closer to his death. That started some very spirited (admittedly, some of the spirit was contributed by the wine we were drinking) discussion on life, how we spend it etc. I made a mental note of going back home and re-reading Seneca’s letter on “On the Shortness of Life”. I cannot remember a better treatise on what causes us to be remorseful of shortness of life than that letter. Roger Whitney and Somshekhar Baksi had pointed me to this literature in the past.

Some of the words have left a strong effect on me. A notable quote:
“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passes away before we knew it was passing”.

Which led me to realize that it is indeed a small part of life that we really live. The rest is not life but merely time.

There is a place where he talks in similar language to what I had first read in Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.”. Addressing Paulinius, Seneca says
“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you do not notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply…”

Another thought that made a big mark in my mind was Seneca’s pointing out that we what we invest to achieve often takes more investment to keep. To preserve prosperity, he says, we need other prosperity. To support the prayers which have turned out well, we have to make other prayers. Remarkable quote again:

“So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil”

Fortune, after all, is never to be less trusted than when it is the fairest!!

If you ever get a chance, read the letter. It is usually available as a collection of three of his most famous letters. The other two did not make that large an impact on me. I read the Penguin Books version.

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28 January 2018

My first impressions – “Rome’s Last Citizen”

Roger Whitney piqued my interest in Stoicism a few weeks back. I had downloaded a few books to understand what he was talking about and started in a slightly unconventional way. Instead of reading about the subject, I first started by reading about people who have followed it.

The history of Cato attracted me. Supposedly a very principled person and Julius Caesar’s arch nemesis (who he viewed as somebody bent on destroying the constitution), he was most famous for how he committed suicide rather than live one day under Julius Caesar’s reign. Ironically, Cato’s son-in-law – Brutus – would be instrumental in the killing of Caesar a couple of years later.

I would give this book about a 6 out of 10. It portrays Cato fairly brilliantly. It does a great job of not steadfastly putting up Cato as just a principled person. In fact, it highlights the fallacies and foibles that Cato had too. The times that he seemingly compromised. And the one time that he did not – when it could have completely changed Roman history in his favor. All due to deep seated fears he harbored of Pompey’s ambitions. It also does a great job of the times that Cato stood up to the rest of the world and like the Twelve Angry Men got the world (or at least those who mattered) to his point of view.

The best contribution the book has is to trash the myth of the so-called greatness of the Great Roman Civilization. If anything, it lays bare the internecine warfare, the depth at which corruption ran, the mockery of democracy by bribes, the backstabbing, the temporary friendships, the brutal use of force and all those things you would not call a civilization by the adjective “Great”.

Where the book gets tedious at times is getting lost in seemingly unimportant details. The book that is 381 pages in lowest size font in iBook (on an iPad Pro) could have been easily put in about 150-180 pages and still contained the full import. (That readers may not have paid the steep price for that thin a book is a different concept altogether)!

The other place where the book failed me personally (less to do with the book, more to do with the fact I was trying to understand Stoicism) is the way the authors make fairly weak and sometimes extremely tenuous connection between Stoicism and how that must have affected Cato. As an example, he giving his second wife Marcia off to the sexagenarian Hortensius – and how that comes from Stoic beliefs of women and their (re)productive years is extremely tortured if not outright misplaced.

As an aside – and the authors mention it only once tangentially – the parallels between the Roman democracy during those years and contemporary US politics was intriguing to me. The influence of money; the conservative (often associated with the Republicans and Cato) versus the liberal (often associated with the Democrats and Julius Caesar), the use of filibuster, the “oppose everything the other guy stands for” … was almost prescient to me!!

Would I suggest you read this book? Not if you are trying to understand Stoicism. But if you had any interest in understanding Cato or the internal workings of the Roman elite (versus the public), it is a reasonably good read. A tad long though it might be.