11 October 2020

Book Review: Why zebras do not get ulcers

This book took me a lot of time to finish. It is a fairly dense book and filled with too many medical terms that made me slow down to get the full impact. Even then, I suspect I caught only some of the major points.

The author – a neuroendocrinologist from Stanford University – tries to explain how stress messes up pretty much every system we have in our body. The funny title of the book is to highlight the point that humans are the only animals that get stressed about what MIGHT happen in the future.

There are about twenty odd chapters. Each chapter has essentially two parts. The first part explains how a system works – circulatory, nervous, sensory, reproductive etc etc. I found these portions fascinating since it helped me understand a little more about how our body works. The second part of each chapter focuses on how stress – or rather the specific hormone “glucocorticoids” plays havoc with the systems when over produced OVER A LONGER PERIOD OF TIME. I do not believe I could concentrate as much in these portions to follow everything.

Here are some interesting snippets…

1. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. Not so for humans.

2. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage – heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular diseases etc…

3. Our stress response system gets mobilized not only in response to actual stress but in expectations of them too.

4. A funny quote – The sympathetic nervous system mediates the four F’s of behavior – flight, fight, fright and sex. (Get it? 🙂 )

5. No cell in your body is more than five cells away from a blood vessel – yet the circulatory system takes up only 3 percent of body mass.

6. Only vertebrates gain acquired immunity as they grow up. Invertebrates do not. It is not exactly known why this is so.

7. Being under stress does make you more susceptible to cold

8. During stress, memory for emotional components is enhanced (although the accuracy is not necessarily all that good), whereas memory for the neutral details is not.

9. If you test young and old people and give them lots of time to complete an IQ test, there is little difference. As you stress the system – in this case, by making the subjects race against a time limit – scores fall for all ages, but much further among older people.

10. Genes are rarely about inevitability in humans. It is more about propensity and tendency.

I enjoyed the book. Hope you will too!

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25 July 2020

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

William Irvine has written this book on Stoicism from a unique perspective – he teaches Stoicism in college and is a practicing Stoic himself.

Among other things, he does a good job of tracing the history of Stoicism. Most of us know and read about the Roman version of Stoicism. But Stoicism started in Greece and had a couple of more interesting facets – reasoning logic (if A, then B; A; ergo B) and physics!!! But they got dropped by the Romans when Panaetius of Rhodes took the philosophy from Greece to Rome.

He also does a good job of explaining the different philosophical schools that competed with Stoicism at that time – Cynics, Epicureans, Skeptics, Megarians and so on.

The practices that the author suggests to any aspiring Stoic are:
(*) Negative Visualization – to fight off “hedonic adaptation and appreciate what you have
(*) Dichotomy of Control – the author extends it to Trichotomy of control – to not worry about the things you cannot control and “internalize goals” when you have some control.
(*) Fatalistic about the past and present but never the future
(*) For advanced practitioners, practice “voluntary discomfort”
(*) Being selective of which social function you attend and who you associate with.
(*) Use self-deprecating humor to counter insults
(*) Deal with anger by reminding yourself of the impermanence

Some interesting quotes from the book:
“Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes”
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”
“If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself”
“To know how many are jealous of you, count your admirers.”
“If we seek social status, we give other people power over us.”

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29 May 2020

Book Review : The Religions of Man

It was in the beginning of April that I had received an email from Erin Stahmer bringing my attention to David Allan’s TEDx talk titled “Who Knows What is Good or Bad?”. While reading the transcript, I found a reference to a Taoist parable that David credited the book “Religions of Man” for.

That is how I got curious about the book. Getting the book was a little more difficult though. This is not available in electronic format. So, had to order the paper version and wait for two weeks for it to appear. For about a month, I was a sight laying down in the bed every night with a highlighter in my mouth trying to take the book in.

Overall, two thumbs up. Loved the book and some of the quotes in it. It also made me put all the important religions on a timeline of when they started. Do you know which is the oldest religion and which is the youngest one?

The author does not get into too much historical details other than explain the societal background against which each of the religions emerged and then explains the basic precepts of each one of them and how they came about.

Some of the facts I learned:
1. How Abraham came to have two sons and how they eventually evolved into the two strands of Jews and Muslims
2. Violence in nature is aplenty. But violence within the species is fairly concentrated in humans only.
3. Had it not been a guard who would not let Lao Tzu go thru the Hankao Pass (he was trying to get away from society on his water buffalo) without writing down his thoughts, we would have never had a religion called Taoism!

Some of the quotes I enjoyed:
1. Tagore: “Truth comes as conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as a friend”
2. Talleyrand – “You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them”
3. Asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I didn’t know we had quarreled”.

Happy reading!

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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.

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.