6 November 2022

Book Review: “Humor, Seriously”

Authors: Jennifer Acker and Naomi Bagdonas

This is a book that I am totally schizophrenic about. I have no recollection about how I found this book. But I know it was not available at iBooks – so I had to read it on Kindle. Ostensibly, the book is about how to use humor as a secret weapon at office.

The initial part was fairly boring to me. It was the part that tried to explain humor in workplace. A lot of it felt theoretical. But also very true. As an example, how you need to be careful about using humor as you go up the hierarchy. Somebody two levels down can make fun of you (especially not in front of you. (The authors call it “punch up”). If you “punch down”, that would be devastating.

Where the book gets a little more interesting to me – somebody who is not funny but unfortunately tries to be is when it dissects what creates humor – (*) Truth (*) Surprise and Misdirection (*) Exaggerate (*) Create Contrast (*) Use Specifics (*) Make Analogies (*) The Rule of Three (*) Build out the world (*) Your signature stories (*) The here and now and my all time favorite (*) Use Callbacks.

Overall, unless you are really serious about understanding how to use humor in leading organizations, I would skip this book.

But whether you read this book or not, I would like to tell you that the way the book ends is outstanding and certainly worth a reminder every single day.

Levity at work and a life well lived share five basic precepts:

1. Boldness: “I wish I had lived more fearlessly.” (To quote Lucille Ball – I am not funny; What I am is brave”
2. Authenticity: “I wish I had loved a life true to myself.” (To quote Tine Fey – Don’t waste your time trying to change opinions. Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.)
3. Presence: “I wish I’d stopped to appreciate the moment more.” (To quote Bill Murray – The last time doesn’t exist. It’s only this time … There’s only now.)
4. Joy: “I wish I had laughed more – and not taken myself so seriously.” (To quote Ellen Degeneres – Do things that make you happy within the confines of the legal system.)
5. Love: “I wish I had the chance to say ‘I love you’ one more time.” (To quote Stephen Colbert – In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself.)

12 October 2022

Book review: The Ikigai Journey by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles

Last month, at a bookstore in New Delhi airport, I was browsing thru a few books and this one caught my attention. I had no idea what Ikigai meant. (I now know it roughly means the “reason for your being”) I wanted the electronic version. Apple does not carry it but Amazon does. Downloaded it and started reading it.

The book is divided into essentially three parts – The Future, The Past and The Present. While reading the first two chapters, it seemed to be ho hum mostly. But the third section had a lot of good tips. That made me go back and read the first two sections again.

The good news is that I found I already practice a few things in alignment with Ikigai – notably, writing, fewer clothes, read news at fixed time and one source only, go analog (use printouts and pen, listen to LP records) etc etc.

However, the book also gave a lot of new ideas to try for Ikigai – like (haiku – but different style, koan, add randomness in a day etc)

I will give some of them a try. Maybe even archery!!

If you are into this kind of books, you might like it. But I do not want to set your expectations too high.

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14 June 2022

Book Review: Factfulness by Hans Rosling

The more I read thru Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, the more I was taken back to an incident from a few years ago. This is when I still participated in WhatsApp groups (now, in general I avoid all groups other than those set up temporarily around events). Regardless of whether it was my early schoolmates’ groups or engineering college group or MBA group, I was always struck by the gullibility of folks that could be seen in those much forwarded messages that were mostly fake news. Nobody would even attempt to do a fact check first. The second was the negativity in the debates.

The particular one I am referring to involved my early school group and the general lamentation was about how in India, politicians have become more corrupt than ever, doctors cannot care less about patients and the society is degenerating fast in general. These are very well meaning folks and I can certainly vouch for their intelligence. I had asked them if they realized the following: We generally feel (rightly) that medical science, social conditions and all that was worse when our parents were growing up. But when it comes to our own life, we feel things were somehow better in the past (not so much past that it goes to our parents’ time) and now it worse!

Therefore, somehow, we all seem to have lived thru the Golden Age of this world in the near past. Whether it is medical practices, politics, transportation… you name it. I had asked them if something seemed too simplistic in this picture. Especially when contrasted with facts like lower death rates for most any reason, increase in real income level of poor people. The last point should have been amply felt by all my friends who had a constant struggle to get domestic help.

This book, I was thrilled to find, goes straight into that issue of how we have a very distorted view of the world and why we do so. Now, this is where I went wrong. I had thought my friends were simply not exercising their intellectual curiosity. That it was a knowledge issue. The book disproves my point. It is less of a knowledge issue. More of a bias issue. Biases that were important for our evolution but are very blunt and often disastrous tools in many situations (but not all) today.

I also want to give a shout out to Sunjay Talele. It is Somshekhar Baksi that has consistently recommended books that I have loved. Sunjay is now up there. He is three for three now.

Going back to the book, the whole purpose of the author – a medical doctor, renowned public educator and an adviser to WHO and UNICEF – is to establish how little we actually know of the world around us. Worse, how we are stuck with very old views of the world and how much the world has changed ever since. This leads to wrong decisions – personal and professional – on an everyday basis.

The book starts with 13 questions. Astoundingly, every segment of the population – different countries, corporate folks, doctors, students, Davos participants, Nobel Laureates – all get very few of those questions right. Most all do worse than a chimpanzee throwing bananas at three target answers. The author draws a chimpanzee face in every chart to show what the “random” answer would have been and how human beings do far worse than that. Which points to systemic bias in our knowledge. Or rather, as the author proves – “feeling” of answers.

Did you know the fear about “chemicals” is way overblown? Sure, there are bad chemicals but most of the chemicals that we are afraid of have very little to be afraid of. As an example – try out “how poisonous is DDT”. Check out the CDC report or any medical reports. It is nothing like what you and I think. [Of course, if you drink a gallon of DDT for over a month, it will severely affect you – but that is not the kind of extreme pictures we have in mind when we think of DDT].

Thru data – mostly from organizations like UN, UNICEF, WHO etc, the author dispels most of the misconceptions we, in the West, have about the Middle East, Africa, India, China and such. Many of those views were never true. Some were valid decades ago but nowhere even close to the truth today.

Here is another one. If I told you worldwide, 30 year old men have spent 10 years in school on an average and then asked you what do you think that number is for 30 year old women. And gave you the choices of 1 year, 4 years and 7 years – what would you say? Well that is a trick question. The answer is 9 years!! We have mostly caught up on that specific problem in spite of the pictures of Afghanistan and Sudan that come up in the news.

To be sure, the author is very clear is that 9 is not an acceptable answer. We got to keep pushing harder till every life lost to war or preventable diseases and gender bias is eradicated. But that does not mean we need to ignore the remarkable improvements we have made in this world on those exact areas. He stresses that we should think that the world is “Bad” AND “Better”. In other words, do not mix up relative scales with absolute scales. Recognizing that is important since just thinking the world is “bad” will lead to despair. Thinking it is “bad” AND “better” drives home the point that we need to keep doing what has made the world “better” so that the “bad” gets lesser and lesser. These are two seemingly contradictory concepts that we have to hold in our head together.

The best part is that the author dissects top ten instincts that leads to this lack of “Factfulness”. (e.g. Negativity Instinct, Gap Instinct and so on). The first four are most important.

You have to give this book a try.

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27 May 2022

Book Review: Prisoners of Geography

This is an intriguing book and a must read for anybody who is remotely interested in geopolitics. The author basically talks about how geography has driven the security or lack thereof of all countries. In spite of technology today, high mountains, deep seas and wide rivers drive most of the geopolitical calculations of every country. This stems from the need to protect trade and security of its citizens.

The book caught my attention right in the first chapter. Very well timed. This was written way before the Ukraine war. But once you read this chapter you will realize why Russia attacked Ukraine. In fact, the author predicted that it waas inevitable. While the author does not condone war – and like all of us – is numbed at the deaths and atrocities, he points out the history of the Northern European Plains – thru which over centuries many many countries have attacked Russia. In fact about once in every 35 years!

Some of the fascinating facts you will learn will include why Europe has so many countries. Part of the reason lies in geography. Most of the major rivers in Europe do not meet. This formed early boundaries for individual spheres of influence – often giving rise to a cities on the banks where people gathered for trade. Eventually, they became the capitals.

Also how Africa’s tardiness in progress can be traced back to lacking any deep, natural harbors (but beautiful, beautiful beaches) and all those impressive rivers having waterfalls ever so often. Ruling out any convenient modes of trade or transportation.

He continues to give a great narrative of how China’s actions – trade wise and military wise, the India-Pakistan conflict (which he predicts will never end), Korea and Japan, The Middle East – so much of the countries’ political decisions and policies are dictated by simple geography. Once you understand the geography of their borders, a lot of their actions are understandable (may not be condonable).

The other thing the author points out is the lasting negative effects European colonialism has had as they – and this includes the Belgians, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and worst of all, the British – who arbitrarily drew country boundaries when the left (have you noticed all the straight line boundaries of countries in Africa or the Middle East?) that paid no heed to the kinds of peoples who live there and thereby ensured that geopolitical conflicts will be a permanent thing.

The most fascinating part is the last chapter. He describes how the melting of the Arctic cap will open up more trading lines, bringing down the importance of the Panama canal and the Suez canal and how different countries will have aggressive postures to establish their primacy in the Arctic. This includes countries like Russia, the Scandinavian countries, US, Canada and such.

Again, an outstanding read. Two thumbs up.

1 May 2022

Book Review: Fiber Fueled

I am getting more and more convinced that books written by medical doctors have basically one message – “Here is the one thing – and it will solve all problems of your body”. This book – referred to me by my dietitian – left a similar aftertaste as after reading the book “Why Zebras do not get Ulcers” (remember?). At least that book had a lot of humor and kept the delivery interesting while almost trying to prove that glucocorticoids were the solution to all your problems.

This book was initially interesting to read – it does a great job in explaining the microbiome and how the bacteria works and also how fiber rich foods are processed by our body. But then as you proceed thru the chapters, the author’s pitch become more and more shrill and the writing becomes almost a marketing pitch. Apparently, fiber will solve all our problems. In his defense, he does concede that there are circumstances like celiac disease patients for whom all fiber may not be a panacea.

The challenge for me, of course, is to accept that there is one solution for everybody. Given our bodies are so different from each other – and there are seven and a half billion of them – I would have expected a little more circumspect approach for any truly research based opinion.

Some of the concepts in the beginning are compelling and educational. For example, the way he explains how food choices affect the biome. And how leaky gut causes inflammation. He also teaches the concept of prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics very well.

Some of his ideas will cause you to sit up. For example, his belief that outside of the five vitals – temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, blood pressure and oxygen level, there should be a sixth one – quality of bowel movement. He does go on to make a compelling case for this.

But then he goes on screaming from the rooftop how every disease can be solved by eating fiber. Often quotes research but I am very skeptical of statements like “Research has shown…”. Not all research are done with the same level of integrity.

In the end, he dedicates another large portion of the book to be a chef with pages and pages of recipes.

That said, I learnt a few things:

1. There are 5 types of microorganisms in our body – bacteria, yeast, parasites, viruses and archaea (never heard of the last one!!)
2. We carry 39 trillion microorganisms in our body. Most of them are bacteria.
3. 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine is produced in the gut. This shocked me. I guess that is why the gut is the second brain.
4. Apparently, genetics have less to do with diseases (only 20% – based on studies of identical twins). 99% of our DNA comes from the biome and only 1% is from the rest of our body.

But above all, his concept of “Eat all the colors of plant based food” is sound advice and I would not take anything away from that.

If you read this book, I would suggest start tapering off around the middle of the book.

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20 February 2022

Book Review: Silence – The power of quiet in a world full of noise

You might remember that during my Covid days, I had the great experience of enjoying full and complete silence during my quarantine. I was by myself in the new house and the irritated throat made sure I could not talk on the phone either. The experience was such that I extended my quarantine period by a day. That grew my initial curiosity in silence.

The first book I read on Silence was not that fruitful. See the review here.

In a second attempt, tried a book by the renowned Vietnamese monk – Thich Nhat Hanh – credited to be the “Father of Mindfulness”. (who, incidentally passed away less than a month back) This was much better. Still did not hit the sweet spot for me. But good all the same.

I think what I am looking for is more a book that delves into how to practice silence. While this book does get into it, it also talks about the general concept of silence (hint: it is not about lack of noise in our environment).

Some of the lines that I liked from this book:

1. “We revisit old memories and experiences, only to suffer again and again the pain we’ve already experienced.”

2. “Not talking, by itself, already can bring a significant degree of peace. If we can also offer ourselves the deeper silence of not thinking, we can find, in that quiet, a wonderful lightness and freedom”.

3. “We may not be cows or buffalo, but we ruminate just the same on our thoughts – unfortunately, primarily negative thoughts”.

4. “Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things it simply means that we are disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter.”

5. “We have a natural tendency to want to run away from suffering. But without any sufferings, we can’t fully develop as human beings.”

I will give this book a thumbs up.

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28 January 2022

Book Review: Think on These Things – Edited by D. Rajagopal

This is one of the books I had started exploring when I had Covid. If you remember, I was trying to look for books on Silence.

Overall, I did not enjoy the book. Just gave up after reading one third of it. Krishnamurti’s commentary or insights are fairly interesting. I loved the very first chapter – “The Purpose of Education”. But the editor, in my opinion, has made a mess of the whole book by presenting 27 very disparate chapters (each mercifully only 4-5 pages long). The jump from one topic to another has little flow and even less lucidity. Inside of a chapter, there are a couple of pages of Krishnamurti’s insights and then there are a few questions that he answers. The questions seem off place – or at least the connection to the topic de jure is tenuous most of the times. Or at least to a person like me, so it seemed.

Certainly cannot recommend this book. There has to be a better book that has put Krishnamurti’s thoughts together.

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.

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.

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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!!!

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