22 December 2019

Strength in Stillness

This book gets a big thumbs down from me. The title “The Power of Transcendental Meditation” made me believe that it will give an idea about what Transcendental Meditation is and how it works. In reality other than talking about there is a “mantra”, all the author does is gives quotes from others and examples of others. The quotes come from very big names like Oprah and Seinfeld and all that. The whole book could have been summarized in couple of pages – “See all these big guys have benefited from this. So can you”.

When it gets to actually talking about how to do it, the book only offers that you get yourself a teacher. Otherwise you cannot learn it. Almost made me feel like I paid twelve dollars to buy me some kind of marketing materials.

This does not mean that Transcendental Meditation does not work or that getting a teacher is not the right thing to do – just that it was not worth spending the time and money to read a book of other people’s quotes and any analysis (if that is even the word I am looking for) that shallow, in my opinion.

I have personally found books by Eckhart Tolle and Jon Kabat-Zinn to be much more thought provoking and insightful.

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20 December 2019

The Geography of Genius

Eric Weiner starts with an interesting observation: Different parts of the world have had short intervals of time (about fifty years or so) during which, that area produced a lot of geniuses in a burst mode. And then completely stopped. Never did again (with one exception). He gives examples of Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna (twice) and the Silicon Valley.

This book chronicles his journeys to those places in quest of analyzing if there are common threads among them. Or at least understand what made those bursts of time happen and then end. Perhaps to get a clue into where it might happen again or even try to artificially create one.

Net net, there is no one formulaic way. Different places had different agents of catalysis. If it was simplicity for Athens, it was chaos for Calcutta, practicality for Edinburgh and so on.

Overall, a great read if you think of it as a journey for Eric where he has put together a lot of interesting thoughts, research quotes and conversations. If you are looking for a scientific analysis into correlation of variables to predict genius, this is not the book you are looking for.

Some interesting things I learnt:

1. Language not only determines how we describe the world but it shapes how we perceive the world. Russians can detect more shades of blue than Americans in a spectrum,. Their language has more words to describe various shades of blue.
2. Humor and creative thinking use the same cognitive muscles (bisociative shock). We find something funny if it is unexpected yet still logically airtight.
3. We recall information associated with incomplete tasks much more readily than other types of information. Something about an unsolved problem boosts our memory and sharpens our thinking. This is why waiters can remember customer orders so well till the food hits the table. Then they have very poor recollection.
4. Ary Goldberger discovered something unexpected about the human heart: a healthy heartbeat is not regular and rhymes but chaotic and irregular. He also showed that extreme regularity, not irregularity, predicted imminent cardiac arrest.

And some interesting quotes:

1. Picasso – “Computers are stupid. They only give you answers.”
2. Einstein – “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research”
3. David Hume – Treatise of Human Nature – “Human beings are not, and never have been, governed by their rational capacities. Passion determines what we want; reason determines how we obtain it”
4. Steve Jobs – “When the lightbulb was invented, no one complained it was too dim”

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12 October 2019

Talking to strangers

Just finished up this book after seeing that Somshekhar recently did the same. Overall, like every other Malcolm Gladwell book, there are a few key points. Some very interesting side facts. And lots of real life stories told in a very gripping way. Devoid of those stories, the net net of his message is about 4 pages strong. If that.

The stories, while initially very absorbing (again, he has a great way of narrating them) eventually became fairly repetitive and a tad too drawn out for me.

The core messages that he wants to deliver are not as insightful as his other books. His basic points are that we are terrible in judging strangers – we let a person’s demeanor color our judgment of their truthfulness, we are too quick to judge others (but never ourselves) and so on. The fundamental issues we suffer from when we judge strangers according to him are:
(*) we default to truth – we believe not because we do not have doubts but because we do not have enough doubts
(*) the illusion of transparency – we overindex on behavior and information gathered from personal interaction
(*) we fail to take context into account (from the stranger’s point of view)

Then again, without these we will not have a functional society either. If we did not default to truth, for example, we will never get anything done. So, in some ways, you are left wondering what to do with what the author is saying.

Now for some interesting side facts:
a. There are tribes in many parts of the world that drink alcohol that is as high as 180 proof. That is near-pure alcohol. They suffer from no social pathology. Now, we understand that alcohol is not a disinhibitor. It merely creates myopia. Meaning we can’t see the long term effect of words or actions. Just the short term ones.

b. When London switched from town gas (other than giving energy at homes, this was also the most commonly used mode of suicide – inhaling the carbon monoxide) to natural gas, the suicide rates plummeted. And did not come back. Implying that suicidal people are NOT determined to commit suicide one way or the other. The tendency needs to be matched with a particular context.

c. Poets have the highest suicide rate (5 times) as much as the general population. They also have far lower life expectancy and much higher emotional disorders than others – even playwrights, novelists and nonfiction writers by a wide margin

Not a big thumbs up from me but you will not regret reading it, for sure.

18 September 2019

Atomic Habits

[This just in… found out that the author was a student of my senior from high school days – Prabasaj-da – who incidentally is absolutely one of the smartest persons I ever had a chance to spend some time with]

About a month back, I was talking to Roger and he mentioned this book. Downloaded it and read it. It is a fairly easy and quick read. There are some good nuggets of wisdom from James Clear.

The underlying thesis of the book is to not focus on outcomes (“want to run a marathon”) and instead focus on the “identity” (“I want to be a runner”). It takes you thru the author’s framework of Cues-Craving-Response-Reward with respect to how to build new habits or break down old ones.

Some interesting observations that caught my eye:
(*) We want to first fit in a group and then we are accepted, we try to stand out
(*) Agriculture spread much faster in Europe and Asia than the Americas and Africa because Europe and Asia is spread left to right rather than top to bottom (think of the homogeneity of climate)
(*) The reason we stick to bad habits? Human brains have not evolved from the immediate-return environment (foraging leads to hunger satisfied now) to delayed-return environment (we invest now so we will be wealthy twenty years from now). Thus we smoke for immediate pleasure but we underestimate the danger in the future.
(*) We can be rational and logical only AFTER we have been emotional

You can read the book to pick up other nuggets yourself.

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13 September 2019

The Algebra of Happiness

That was a quick read. Did not land up being a great fan of it. If you are a young person in twenties or thirties, you might like this – kind of a Ready Reckoner for Happiness. But, if you are somebody in my age group or at least have any reasonable level of reflections on life, you are probably going to find this book not having much depth. Perhaps, my disappointment is because I could not learn anything new.

Scott – who is a professor at NYU – where I have a daughter – starts by tying to be funny and some of the doodles will make you crack a smile. But the narration goes all over the place and I, at least, could not find a coherent path. Plus, it came across as more of a “mea culpa” on his life.

That said, there are a couple of things that caught my attention. First is his reference to the app 1 Second Everyday. Seems like an interesting idea (you take a second of video everyday and then look at the collection – often mashed up – much later to go thru reflections and recollections). I have downloaded it but not tried it yet!

Couple of the more memorable statements include:

“When times are bad, people look for gray hair for leadership. When times are good, people look for youth”. and

“Entrepreneurship is a sales job with negative commissions until you raise capital; they are profitable or go out of business – whichever comes first.”

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8 September 2019

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

I got to know about this book written by the investigative journalist David Epstein, while reading another book.

First, I have to start by saying that I became a believer of “breadth over depth” long time back in my career (which explains why I have never worked in the same industry twice and have thus never been accused of being an expert in anything). Therefore, my recommendations for this book might be a form of self-rationalization.

But if you want to understand why variety of knowledge and experience leads you to understand the deeper structures of a problem and their relationships much better – which is impossible to do if you are looking thru the tunnel vision of one discipline only – this is a good book to read.

The author does a good job of separating those domains where deep knowledge actually helps (he calls it “kind domain”). These are also the domains that are likely to be taken over by computers. e.g. Watson will beat humans in chess. But when it gets to “wicked domains” – requiring a lot more of strategic thinking – that is when interdisciplinary knowledge becomes interesting. (Till date, all progress of Watson solving cancer has been nothing to write home about)

On the flip side, the author makes most of his points in the first quarter of the book. The rest of the book is filled with a lot of very interesting stories and examples from all over the world. However, at times, it becomes difficult to understand what the core message in those stories are or how it directly relates to the original point. To be fair, there are connections – it is just that he does not draw the line for you.

All in all, a very enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

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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”


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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