21 January 2022

Book Review – “Through the Language Glass”

By Guy Deutscher

Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

I forget which book, but somewhere I had read that Russians have two different words for what we club as “blue”. And they “see” two different colors if you showed them the whole spectrum of “blue” whereas we see one. That had given rise to an interesting question in my mind – Does our perception of the world get affected by our mother tongue (the language we learn to express what we perceive by) or do we all perceive the same thing – we just express it differently?

During Covid, downloaded a book after quite some research – Through the Language Glass and was fascinated by what I learnt.

Found out that Russians are likely to find it ridiculous that English speakers think of two different colors – “siniy” and “goluboj” – as one color – blue. They fail to understand how we do not clearly perceive two different colors. We just don’t see how these are different. If pressed, we will admit, one is simply “deep” blue (think deep ocean color) and the other is “light” blue (this about the Caribbean waters). Conversely, we are likely to find it ridiculous that the Ovaherero people in Namibia do not see the two colors – green and blue as two different colors. We wonder – “What’s wrong with you? How can you say blue trees and green sky?”. It is not like they do not register in their brain as two different colors – it is just that they do not see what is the big need to call them two different colors. Just like we don’t see the need to label deep blue and light blue differently in normal life.

Grammar is yet another area where how we think of events get influenced deeply. Take verbs for example. In English, you have to convey to the audience the “tense” of the verb. You have to pass on the perception of if the event happened in the past, present or future. But you do not need to pass on the perception of the “person” (subject) who for example “walked”. In Arabic though, both the tense and the person is embedded in the verb. In Chinese, neither is embedded. The language grammar influences what you think are the important things to be conveyed during aa conversation.

Different languages force the speaker to pay attention to different aspects of the world every time you try to speak or listen. As an interesting (and somewhat extreme) example, there are Amazon tribes (like Matses) where you cannot just say “Rajib ran by our street”. The language will force you convey either experience (did you see him run) or evidence (he left his water bottle by your gate) or conjecture (he always runs by our street) or hearsay (your neighbor told you he ran by your street).

The most fascinating one is how certain folks (scattered all over the world – Polynesia, Mexico, Bali, Nepal, Namibia, Madagascar) have no concept of left or right. Just the four cardinal directions. Imagine that. Regardless of where they are, they always have an accurate sense of what is North!!

Even gender biases show up in how we see the world. Time and again, an experiment has been done – almost always with the same results. A bunch of Spanish folks and a bunch of German folks are shown a picture of a bridge and asked to describe it in adjectives. The Spanish – for whom bridge is a masculine noun (“el puente”) – use words like big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering… and the Germans – for whom bridge is a feminine noun (“die Brucke”) see it as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty and slender!

There are many more such interesting examples from different languages. Eventually, the author answers the question that I had – although apparently, the answer has been settled for good only in the last half century – the language you speak in absolutely biases you regarding how you perceive the world.

Highly recommend this book if this is an interest area for you.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
11 December 2021

Book Review: Think Again

Author: Adam Grant

I have to start by admitting that reviewing this book has been more difficult than most books. First, I have been distracted in a few other things which meant that reading this book took a lot more time than it should have. Somshekhar – whose intellectual curiosities coincide with mine (although he has a far more wisdom than I do) had pointed me to this book. Another bibliophile that I rely on – Soumyadipta – however, was lukewarm on this book (at least in comparison with Adam Grant’s other books). That was a conundrum I had to solve by reading it thoroughly and judge for myself.

I have independently landed with the opinion that this is a two thumbs up book.

It does a fascinating job of questioning one’s own biases and the fallacy of letting one’s identity be defined by one’s opinions (the concept of ego). Instead, he delves into the benefits of doubt and joy of being wrong. (I recognize that the concept of deriving joy from being wrong can raise a few eyebrows).

Recently I was at a coffee shop when a young lady came in with her toddler. When she let him down, he moved around like a drunk person hitting a thing here and there and trying to learn how to stay up balanced and take a few steps. As the book predicted, we all were filled with joy and clapped to encourage the kid.

But ask yourself – if your friend suddenly decided to learn skateboarding (okay, that hit too close to home 🙂 ) – and a few of you watch him taking steps like he was three sheets to the wind, the usual reaction is to laugh … not clap and encourage. Why is it that we accept that kids will make mistakes as they learn but we do not recognize that in adults?

The author then delves into a topic rather close to my heart – creating learning organizations. I thought he demonstrated surprisingly deep understanding of corporate culture on this topic.

If not anything else, you are bound to learn how to have very nuanced conversations – how to complexify contentious topics and not shy away from caveats and contingencies.

Like I said, two thumbs up from me.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
14 September 2021

Book Review: Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt

Did you know you can whistle more accurately than you can sing? Do you know why?
Most of us have difficulty copying a drawing of a face. Turn it upside down and it becomes much easier!! Do you know why?
Students who studied both science and arts – a relative rarity – were much more likely to later assume leadership roles?

Well, the reason I picked up this book is my desire to learn new skills every other year or so. I was looking for a book that delves into the learning process itself. I had to believe that at a first derivative level, learning lessons must follow similar patterns regardless of the skill. And if I understood those patterns, learning might become easier as I keep getting old.

The book does not disappoint. For one, it is written by a journalist – who tend to have a flair for writing. For another, he himself has picked up a lot of new skills – playing chess, singing, swimming, surfing, juggling, drawing – at a fairly high level at a fairly old age.

The book started a little slow for me – I was okay with the story telling – but I was looking for some insights. The speed picks up in the subsequent chapters. There is one chapter that is fully dedicated to understanding the learning process and how at old age, we make learning difficult for ourselves.

Some interesting insights about being a beginner:
1. A man progresses in all things by making a fool of himself – GB Shaw
2. Becoming a first-time parent is one of the more fundamental experiences of being a beginner
3. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the experts mind there are few – Shunryu Suzuki
4. Students who studied both science and arts – a relative rarity – were much more likely to later assume leadership roles.

Why we stop learning new things:
1. What is admired in today’s society is success, achievement and the quality of performance rather than the quality of experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
2. The idea of undertaking new pursuits, ones that you may never be very good at, seems perverse in this age of single-minded peak performance.
3. “To permit yourself to do only that which you are good at, is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment”
4. Much of our pain in learning, argues Barbara Oakley, comes from getting hung up on results.

Some considerations towards learning:
1. We all have latent abilities that can be unlocked
2. Skills take time
3. Failure is an essential part of learning
4. Change up your practice
5. Your progress is not going to be linear
6. Skills rarely “transfer”
7. Always be on the edge of the impossible (if it feels easy, you’re probably not learning)
8. Learning new skills helps open new worlds.
9. Goals are good, but keep your eyes open for opportunity

Interesting things I learnt about singing:
1. Weirdly, whispering usually puts more strain on the vocal folks than speaking
2. We do not have as much control over our mouth as over our larynx. In fact, we can whistle more accurately than we can sing
3. The vowel is the voice. The consonant is the interruption of the voice

Dreyfus model of learning:
1. Beginners are always looking at themselves. We do worse at an activity when we focus on ourselves, instead of some “external” target
2. Beginners judge their performance by how well they follow the rules.
3. If beginners are about learning rules, advanced beginners are about actually applying those rules. That also involves when not to apply those rules or how to act when no rule seems to apply.
4. There are often, in moments of anxiety, a disconnect in skills learning between instinct and proper technique… hitting high notes, you bend your knees and dip down, in skiing, you lean forward not to fall, in motorcycling, you push the handle left to go left, in surfing, you punch the accelerator when the brain says brake.

Interesting things I learnt about juggling:
1. One way to improve learning, research suggests, is to make skills seem easier in the beginning (juggle slowly).
2. The key to learning juggling is not thinking. Thinking gets in the way of learning.
3. Sleep, or even a short rest, is one of our best learning tools.
4. The brain wants to be puzzled and learn something new. It likes learning for learning’s sake. Taking gaps in learning – and making mistakes again – solidifies learning.
5. Drawing is said to be a good way to actually acquire knowledge because the act of drawing adds another layer of memory encoding our brain.

Interesting things I learnt about drawing:
1. Copying a drawing of a face is much easier if you just turn it upside down! The brain is not hamstrung by the “meaning” of it anymore! What people drew was more influenced by the symbols in their minds than what was on the page.
2. If you look in a crowded room, all heads appear of same size (called size constancy). Try to draw all heads of same size and something will look wrong on the page. Now draw the heads to their actual dimensions and the brain will see the drawing and still see them all sat the same size!
3. Drawing is not hard. Seeing is!!

Some final points from the author:
1. One of the almost inevitable by products of learning new things is the spillover effect of wanting to learn more new things…
2. The most important lesson was that it was never too late to be a beginner

Two thumbs up from me!!!

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
31 July 2021

Book Review: The Socrates Express

Author: Eric Weiner

I forget who it was that had brought my attention to this book. Smart money is on Somsekhar Baksi. If you are inclined towards learning very quickly about some of the key points about quite a few philosophers – some of who, I guarantee you have not heard of and some you may not think of as a philosopher either (e.g. Gandhiji), this is a great read.

As always with every book, each time you read it, a few points hit home runs for you. One of those winners for me was actually from the author himself – not any particular philosopher. And it deals with 10 points about How to Grow Old.

Here are some memorable quotes from the book that might pique your interest.

1. Miles Kington – “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad”
2. Albert Camus – “Suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem”. Is life worth living or not?
3. Jacob Needleman – “The Heart of Philosophy” – “Our culture has generally tended to solve its problems without experiencing its questions.
4. John Stuart Mill – Pleasure Paradox – Happiness is a by-product, never an objective
5. Thoreau – Doubt is essential. It is the vehicle that transports us from one certainty to another.
6. Idealism – Everything we experience is a mental representation of the world, not the world itself. Physical objects only exist when we perceive them. (fridge light example)
7. Music speaks to the essence of life. An image of heaven even a secularized one, may or may not have paintings and statues. We take it for granted that there will be music.
8. We lead telephoto lives in a wide angle world
9. We lose objects suddenly, but experience the loss gradually.
10. Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes most of us complain about it.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
23 June 2021

Book Review: Calendar – Humanity’s Epic struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year

Book Review: Calendar – Humanity’s Epic struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year
David Ewing Duncan

I am not sure who had referred me to this book, but it was in the comment section of some other Book Review I had written. Unfortunately, this book is not available in the digital format. I got the paper version, but since I do not often carry a book with me, I never got around to actually reading this. Till now.

A fascinating book on how we came up with calendars. The numerous mistakes, the number of lives lost (yes, just because of calendar design), the arbitrary dropping of dates in calendar (different countries did in different times) all make for a great read. The author narrates this more as a history lesson than anything else. And he does a great job.

He starts almost on a philosophical note when he talks about how today, we are constantly looking backward and forward in time but never contented with the present. In a way that our ancestors who tilled fields and lived and died according to the great cycles of nature would have never comprehended.

The story he takes us thru starts with the Cro-Magnon man. One of whom would have realized the curious nature of how the moon every night changed and came back to the same position ever so often (about 29 days) as evidenced in bones with telling marks from those days. And thus, almost all calendar journeys for us started with the moon and lunar calendars. Even to this date, lunar calendars are followed in many parts of the world (including my own Bengali calendar – which has been later adapted to take into account the sun’s movement).

Later, the need to take into account the “seasons” came in – especially as farming and harvesting became more prevalent. And that started the eternal struggle to figure out how to calculate a calendar year. Because any which way we divided the cycle of seasons (about 365 days and change) it could never fit well within an integral number of cycles of the moon (about 29 days and change). The resultant was that for the most of the our known human history, our seasons and equinoxes and all that never came “on time”. We were always in error.

The Babylonians, who were very good in astronomy compromised with a “lunisolar” year but it was the Egyptians that truly embraced the sun and ditched the moon to fix the “year”. They Mayans came up with an even more complicated calendar (it was a three calendar system). The Egyptians had figured out that there was another quarter day after 365 to make it a full year but they ignored it for the most part.

The Romans, in the meanwhile, were a mess. It was Caesar who after coming to help Cleopatra got to know about the Egyptian system and then more or less bulldozed a far more modern system in the Roman empire. Which continued for a fairly long time.

Eventually, biggest need for time accuracy that the West felt was the Easter date. The most sacred date at that point of time, celebrations of the same would have been blasphemy if it did not happen on the right date. Ironically, the calendar then was somewhat of a “secret” with the church having a stranglehold on it and they would announce dates often abruptly. Sometimes to favor themselves or kings they liked.

It was Constantine who gave the next big thrust to fixing a calendar year with the great conference in Nicaea that more or less standardized the calculation of the Easter day. It was a fairly onerous task involving nearly 15 equations.

Then came a long period of decline of the Church, the Roman Empire and the West in general. Meanwhile, Islam started their own calendar and the fact that the Indian and Chinese had their own calendars (all mostly moon based) came to the fore as knowledge of other lands started gaining a stronghold in the West.

While Aryabhata from India was a big influence in how the calendar eventually shaped up, the Indian civilizations biggest contribution to the calendar was possibly cracking the positional system. Like 365 means 3 hundreds, 6 tens and 5 unit. It seems so natural now – but imagine the world before that. Just think about the Roman numerals that we are so familiar with. Here is a paradox – even though the Indians knew and depicted fractions (one number up, one number down) – it is not known why they never cracked the decimal system (which is also positional) to represent fractions.

Interestingly, that simple twist delayed the calendar year determination. Basically, we did not know how to represent what we already knew (couldn’t write fractions !!). The Arabs cracked that problem and then they get the credit for calculating a year to the greatest accuracy in those days (12 digits after the decimal). The Europeans did not care about the importance of this “slip”. Incidentally, the person who calculated this is Omar Khayyam. Most of us in the West think of him as the brilliant poet. He was much more.

In the West, the Church continued to thwart efforts by others like Copernicus, Galileo to scientifically fix the year in what can be described as the Dark Ages of the Calendar. Eventually, Pope Gregory XIII called a Niceae style conference to resolve the Easter date once and for all. The person who gets full credit for solving the calendar problem finally is one doctor called Aloysius Lilius who was not even alive when the conference took place. His brother presented his case – with a lot of support from Clavius.

Just because this Gegorian calendar was enacted in 1582 does not mean everybody adopted it. The Protestant countries simply refused to, as an example – for no other reason than that it was done by the Catholic Pope! But the other reason was that this change involved dropping 10 days from the calendar to make adjustments to prior errors. Politicians, true to their colors, often used this to confuse the masses who were completely irate that somebody was “stealing 10 days of their lives”. England waited nearly 150 years! Japan adopted in 1873! Russia in 1918 !! China in 1949 !

And then in 1972, we switched to following the oscillations of a Caesium atom to determine a year (about 3 million trillion oscillations) for accuracy – and sometimes in a year adjust the clock by a second to take into account the variations in earth’s speed and tilt. But for the common man, we stay with the 365 days, one leap day every four years, but no leap day on the century year unless it is divisible by 400, in which case, we will have a leap day. For the most part, this will work out for the next 3 thousand years.

Two thumbs up! If anybody in Atlanta wants it, you can borrow my copy. (Too many highlighter marked passages though)

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
6 June 2021

Book Review: “Nine Lies About Work”

This book was referred to me by Juli Johnson from our company. I believe there is an audio book version of this. I am still a “you read a book, not hear it” kind of guy 🙂

First, this is a very atypical book for me to review – I usually do not study too many books that has to do with work. Second, I am very, very skeptical of any book or any person who tries to teach how to manage talent. My personal experience is that every human being is unique and trying to generalize anything as talent principles is at best, misguided. Remember those books from a few years back that were inspired by Jack Welch’s views on how to deal with the “bottom 10%”. Yes? Good. I am using some of them as doorstop for my music room. Right next to the books on Atkinson’s diet, Paleo diet etc.

Of course, the answer cannot be to throw away everything. You still need some kind of framework of thinking. The key point is to understand that every aspect of talent management is, in all likelihood, over generalization or sometimes, outright, wrong. In fact, most of the “research” cited have one common flaw – they cannot control for other variables. And when we talk about human beings – it is very difficult to control for “other” variables.

The point is to be aware of these flaws in any system. This allows one to recognize the limitations of the frameworks and therefore allows for judgmental calls. As infuriating as it can be (“Where is the fairness?”), evaluating any professional is fundamentally a subjective call. It is subjective depending on the rater, the rated and even the time when the rating is done.

If not anything else, this book will make you think of how deeply flawed our basic assumptions and often quoted, catchy phrases about Talent management is. I also want to suggest that the authors do not necessarily give answers that always make much sense to me. Some do. But maybe you will understand the others better than me.

Here are the top 9 Lies the authors want to highlight to you. The portions in [ ] are my comments. The rest are from the book.

Lie #1: People care which company they work for
People might care about which company they join, but after that, they care which team they are on.

Lie #2: The best plan wins
Company level plans do not predict the future. It merely tells you where you are. The world moves too fast for plans. What wins is providing data and intelligence (what is happening) to everybody quickly and accurately.

Lie #3: The best companies cascade goals
Company goals top down defeats the purpose. Better way would be show the employees what you value. And let the goal setting happen locally.

Lie #4: The best people are well rounded
[This one spoke a lot to me; I still get miffed by performance reviews that talk about Strengths and Weaknesses].
Best people are spiky. They excel in one or two things. Better than most. And they leverage this/these traits to produce outsize results. Uniqueness is a feature. Not a bug.

Lie #5: People need feedback
People need attention. Not feedback. The attention people need is to what they are doing best – not what they are not doing well. We all want to be seen for what we are best at.

Lie #6: People can reliably rate other people.
[This one spoke to me a lot too. If you get a chance, look up Idiosyncratic Rate Effect].
Most raters are terrible in judging others – if there was even a benchmark to measure against. They have deep biases and often are judging based on very little data. What we can reliably rate is our own experience.

Lie #7: People have potential
Like potential is a thing inherent to a person (like a trait). This is a function of the environment and opportunities as much as the person. Every brain is capable of learning – the speed differs based on the environment and opportunities. People have different momentum – we move through the world differently depending upon environment and opportunities.

Lie #8: Work-life balance matters most
Love in work matters most. That is what work is really for.

Lie #9: Leadership is a thing
[This, I found very interesting.]
There is no such thing as leadership skills. Take the name of 10 leaders and you will see there is no pattern to their traits. Some like Steve Jobs was even lacking in some basic ethics area. What does make a leader a leader – and this is a common trait – is that they have followers.
[The authors then spend quite a few pages on why people follow. I found that very intriguing.]

Highly recommend you read it if you care about talent issues.

16 May 2021

Book Review – The Art of Logic in an Illogical World by Eugenia Chang

I got interested in this book when I saw this in a picture of pile of books a school friend of mine had read thru during his bout of Covid in India. It is an interesting book but I would not suggest it for most people. People who are willing to understand the fallacies of arguments in a heated debate (but really can’t use it to make the other person change his/her mind) might find this interesting. It is like knowing the theory but not being able to put it to practice (or at least much of it).

That said, Eugenia – a British mathematician – does a good job of explaining what is logic, when it works, when it does not work and why it is often not an effective instrument in convincing the other person in a debate.

One quick point she brings upfront in the book is the difference between math and all other subjects. It is the use of logic that enables mathematicians to reach agreements that withstand the test of centuries whereas other subjects – notably science – is continuously refining its points of view.

Math uses logic and science uses evidence. Logical implication means that something is definitely true. Evidence simply means that it contributes to the probability that something is true. To be fair, she does point out that even in math, the whole construct of logic is built upon mutually agreed axioms.

Usually, logic fails due to involvement of emotions, too much data, too little data or too much randomness.

Logic is a great way to verify truth. But that is not the same as convincing others of truth. When we use language, the primary aim of normal language is to simply communicate (as opposed to the primary aim of logical language – which is to remove ambiguity). Verifying and conveying are two different things.

Again, read this is if you try to understand some of the background of why there are so many deeply formed divisive opinions – politics is a prime example today but religion used to be before. It is not going to make you any more effective in trying to change minds though.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
21 February 2021

Book Review – The Intelligence Trap by David Robson

The Intelligence Trap – Why smart people make dumb mistakes.

The title itself is enough to pick up the book from a shelf. Once you open it, you cannot keep it down. David’s story telling style (the story on the very first page will get you) and the explanation of research to lay it down to a layman why smart people have such dichotomy of deeply held beliefs – from vaccination to climate to evolution and so on is remarkable.

The book not only explains some of the evolutionary reasons of why and how our biases lead us down these parting ways but also spends quite a few pages explaining how you can try not falling in these traps.

Here are some interesting ideas from the book to pique your interest….

1. Core thesis is when we talk of intelligent people – we reflect on “analytical” intelligence. But judgment requires two other kinds of abilities – “creative intelligence” – ability to invest, imagine and suppose and “practical intelligence” – ability to plan and execute an idea to overcome life’s messy, ill formed problems in a pragmatic way – which needs one to have metacognition (judging your own strength and weakness) and read motives of others (often referred to as social or emotional intelligence)

2. Intelligent and educated people are less likely to learn from their own mistakes, are less able to recognize the flaws in their own logic and when they do err, they build elaborate arguments to justify their reasoning.

3. A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices

4. Academic tests are timed, usually. We are taught that speed of reasoning is a quality of our minds. Hesitation and indecision is undesirable. Being “slow” is stupid. And yet, hesitation, indecision and being slow is exactly what is required to understand one’s own error in judgment.

5. People with high IQs have shown to be equally likely to be in financial distress (miss mortgage payment, bankruptcy, credit card debt) as lower IQ people!!

6. “Myside bias” (confirmation bias) is highest when it speaks to our sense of identity. This explains why we come to very quick decisions (System 1 – or Fast Thinking) when it comes to opinions on religion, politics, nationality or even sports teams! Smart people do not apply their superior intelligence for truth seeking so much as promoting their interests or opinions. Greater education and intelligence simply helps people to justify their beliefs that match their points of views. This explains anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and evolution deniers. They are as intelligent as the other side.

7. Our beliefs are first borne out of emotional needs. Intellect kicks in later to rationalize.

8. Human thought are less about truth seeking. It is about persuading others to our point of view and be skeptical of the other side (most likely from evolution). Thus biased reasoning is not a side effect of increased brainpower – it is the reason for it.

9. “Experts” come with two big challenges – their inability to see the other side (goes against their sense of identity – see above) and others tend to believe them even when what they are saying has nothing to do with with their area of expertise. “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” – Bertrand Russell. Experts confuse their current level of understanding with their prior peak level of understanding. Therefore, they find it very difficult to to say “I do not know”.

10. Hearing the same opinion from different people has the same ability to convince you as hearing the same opinion from the same person repeatedly!!!

26 January 2021

Of Montaigne and Somshekhar Baksi

This guy – Somshekhar Baksi – is what you might call a Renaissance Man. My meeting a few years back is something I savor every moment reminiscing about it. Once a year, I get to talk to him on his birthday. (Which, regrettably ends when he realizes I have taken too much of his time). Today was no exception.

Our big topic today was Montaigne. If you are not much into philosophy, this is your cue to exit. Baksi – as we used to call him in our MBA school days – led me to yet another book – not Montaigne’s “Essays” per se… but the biography written by Sarah Bakewell.

This is what I came up on Page 1… Nothing has described why I blog about mundane details about my life better than this… Or why I will never write a book…

“shared self-revelation is the best way to develop trust and cooperation around the planet, replacing national stereotypes with real people.”

For, in describing what makes me different from anyone else, I simply reveal what I share with everyone else: the experience of being human. This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity— while not unique, is often overlooked.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
28 December 2020

Book Review – Appollo’s Arrow by Nicholas Christakis

Nicholas is a renowned doctor and sociologist who has done some great research into Covid-19 and other pathogens. His research is detailed enough to show the map of rooms on the 9th Floor in the Hotel Metropole to show how the spread of the virus was fairly unpredictable. (who will get it and who will not).

He gets into some interesting descriptions of why people resort to not believing science or how pandemics end. How pandemics bring the worst out of humans and also the best out of humans. He also details how pandemics – this being no exception – mostly highlight and heighten inequality.

But mostly, he gives a gripping day by day account of what happened in the early stages of 2020 when we were learning about the virus for the first time.

A fascinating paragraph from the book:

“It is not clear why human beings should be favored to win against microbes in an evolutionary arms race. Microbes have been around a lot longer than humans, are far more numerous, do not mind dying and can mutate rapidly, evading our defenses.”

Some of the things you will learn about pandemics and pathogens:

1. Concept of IFR and CFR (infection fatality rate and case fatality rate) as well as RE and R0 (called R naught) to understand how bad a virus can be.And how the value of R0 defines what percentage of the population need to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

2. There are only seven types of coronavirus that infect humans. Four of them cause common cold!

3. SARS-1 was fundamentally different from SARS-2 since a SAR-1 patient could not infect BEFORE being symptomatic. (mismatch period was virtually 0)

4. Future mutations of virus get increasingly WEAKER not stronger. Due to Darwinian evolutionary pressures, it is AGAINST the interest of the virus to kill the host. It simply wants – like everybody else – to multiply and spread.

5. Irony in our education – we dedicate pages after pages in history books for wars – like World War 1 – and none for pandemics like the 1918 influenza. Yet the latter killed far more people than the former!!

6. The term “quarantine” goes back to the days when ships were kept offshore for 40 days in case there was an infection onboard. The number 40 has many references in the Bible (e.g. the flood that had Noah building the ark lasted 40 days)

7. Contrary to what most people think, medicine has actually played a surprisingly small role in the decline of most infectious diseases across time. In fact a vaccination was always found decades after the peak of deaths. We managed with socioeconomic improvements and public health measures

8. The book predates the Covid-19 vaccine. First time in our history, we have managed to find a medical solution (vaccine) with the pandemic barely completing a year. This once, medicine WILL play a big role in the decline of deaths. Which made me think – could it be that as we get into more respiratory pandemics (about once every 20 years), we will find medical solutions in a matter of a couple of months – ultimately technology triumphing the microbes?

9. While most pandemics are U shaped (if you plot age on X-axis and fatality on Y axis) or L shaped (and in some cases W shaped) – Covid-19 has been an exception in the sense, it is J shaped (fatality rises sharply at the older ages).

10. The author predicts that our practice of shaking hands in the Western world will go the way of spittoons in movie halls and cigarette smoking in airplanes.

11. The reason why we had toilet paper shortages is not entirely explainable by hoarding. In fact, in a 24 hour day, taking away 8 hours of sleep, with no office to go to, time spent in home doubled (from 8 to 16). Increasing demand for TP in every home by a factor of two (moved the demand from office bathrooms to home bathrooms). But the supply chain for paper products to home versus office are completely different and it takes a lot of time to switch!

12. 38% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form sometime in the last ten thousand years! Over 25% Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth!! And 61% cannot identify Big Bang as the origin of the universe.

13. All modern plagues are zoonoses coming to us from wild animals. Our other major contagious diseases (smallpox, TB, measles etc) came to us from animals we have domesticated.

Anyways, I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. Two thumbs up for this book.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT