19 April 2020

Book Review: Stillness is the Key

Overall, I would give it a thumbs sideways.
If you have ever read any book on meditation, the concept of being in the now or slowing down, then you can skip this book. If you have not, this might be a good first book to get introduced to the concepts.

To me the benchmark to beat is still Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.

Compared to that, this book would come across superficial and trying to address too many topics in too few pages. I am not sure I can recommend this.

But if you are very early in the journey of understanding your own self and how to stay still, this is bound to be a great first read.

There is something this book talks about from Taoism that appealed to me. And that is how nothingness can have a lot of meaning when it is put in the correct context. A cubic meter of air in front of you means nothing. Unless I put a clay cover around it. Suddenly it can hold water (like a pitcher). The concept of doing nothing, achieving nothing … cannot be truly understood unless you put the context of a full life around it.

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15 April 2020

Book Review: Loonshots

This book came by recommendation of Soumyadipta. Overall, a very enjoyable book. The basic theory is about how the best ideas that won wars or conquered diseases were rejected for many years as completely lunatic ideas before they got accepted. Hence “Loonshots” (lunatic + moonshots).

The book has some incredible anecdotes and stories. Sometimes though you might get lost in the intrigue of all those stories and lose the basic point of what the author is trying to build up to. I had to go back thru the book and skim it a second time to tie all those points he was making into the overall roadmap he had planned to establish.

Some great case studies of radar, insulin, Apple, Polaroid, Pan Am and such success or failure stories. One very interesting conclusion is that to support really large loonshots, you need the support of government. Nobody has as much money and capacity to digest failures. The author takes us thru the glorious days of American breakthroughs when government and science came together.

You will learn about the magic of power of 2.5. Did you know that a lot of things – e.g. casualties in civil war and the frequencies of them or forest fire size (area) and occurrences are all correlated by a factor of 2.5?

You will also learn how the optimum size of human groups is 150. We naturally tend to congregate in that size. Apparently, the neocortex size and the social group size of all primates follow a fairly strict straight line. And if you extrapolate to homo sapiens neocortex size, you will arrive at 150!!

If you are an organizational leader, there are some thought provoking ideas here – about how to keep an organization viable and productive as it goes thru transitions. The example of molecules of water and ice co-existing at 32 F and freely intermixing is a powerful one.

You will also learn about the power of systems thinking (understanding why we took a decision in the past) versus outcome thinking.

And even if you are not an organizational leader, you will find a lot of Aha! moments in this book.

Now, I have to say that before I picked up this book, I read up the reviews and there were a lot of scathing ones (some sounded very personal). After reading the book, I do not think the author deserves any of that. Certainly, as I mentioned, the diversity of examples and theories the author gets into – and there are lots of them – makes you forget how they relate to the original roadmap but a simple re-read solved that problem for me.

Thumbs up from me.

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22 March 2020

Book Review: Make Time

This was a very quick read and as very quick read books tend to be, not particularly helpful to me. Now, I have to admit that I am fairly disciplined (some would suggest even OCD) in how I go around planning my day, weeks and years. Most of the things suggested here are things I found I already do (e.g. minimize TV – for me it is zero time, avoid news – I catch up weekly thru Economist – exactly what one of the author does, block calendar times, reflect etc etc). It is possible that others might find some nuggets of wisdom here and there.

One suggestion did catch my eye – I am going to try that. It talks about how while discussing or debating, we get caught up on facts. e.g. we would be talking about Coronavirus and somebody would be mentioning how Italy now has more deaths than China. Somebody else would doubt it and then immediately we would go to our phone and Google to get to the facts.

The book suggests that it is too distracting and that we should try keeping a “Random question list” and check later. That is an intriguing thought. Of course, now I am worrying – do I have to carry a piece of paper all the time? Or do I have to fish out my phone to write down the question anyways? Also, without the fact at that point, can the discussion continue at all? Not very sure, but I will see how this works.

One thing though, the authors have written the book in a very funny way.

Still, it will not get in my recommended read list.

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15 March 2020

Book Review: “Why We Sleep”

I am going to try to tamp down on the hyperbole but I am not sure how. This book is three thumbs up. Yes, I am aware I have two thumbs,

If I were to name three books that have had the deepest influence on me, they would be (*) The Top Five Regrets of a Dying Man (*) The Power of Now and this book (*) Why We Sleep.

I received this from my younger daughter as a Christmas gift. I finally picked it up for reading sometime in January. This was such a great book that I had to read cover to cover – TWICE !! Unfortunately, in the last two months, I have talked about this book in way too many group gatherings – undoubtedly putting them to sleep. Which, ironically, is what this book is all about.

Fantastic book to understand sleep. And dispel some myths about sleep….

Did you know that…

(*) Sleep is not about lack of wakefulness. There is a boat load of stuff your brain is doing when you are sleeping.
(*) Our brain shuts off the portion of itself that controls motor movements when we dream. Do you know why? Else we will act out our dream!! (try to get off from bed and run away when we dream we are being chased)
(*) Adolescents sleeping late and waking up late? That is not a choice. They need that. It is an evolution thing.
(*) Most sleeping pills do not control your sleep. They just act as sedatives (blunt out your brain)
(*) We have no concept of time when we dream. In fact the concept of time when we dream dilates 3X to 4X!
(*) NREM sleep helps you move your memories from the day from short term (hippocampus) to your long term (frontal cortex) but it is your REM sleep that helps you stick those memories to past memories (making you learn)
(*) Dolphins and whales sleep with one side brain shut off at a time!
(*) Evolution wise, we are biphasic sleepers (once after lunch and then the long sleep at night)
(*) Older adults need less sleep? Yeah, that is a myth
(*) We wash our face before we go to sleep because feelings clean causes better sleep? Another myth! But there is a biological reason why we should wash down our feet, hand and face/whole head to induce sleep.
(*) 65 degrees room temperature is ideal for deep sleep (that is too cold for me!!!)
(*) You are on high fat/low carb diet? You are messing up your REM sleep (leading to learning) but getting deep NREM sleep (short term memory cleaning is good)

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22 December 2019

Book Review: “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

Book Review: “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

Book Review: “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

Book Review: “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

Book Review: “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

Book Review: “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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