9 June 2024

Book Review: Note to Myself by Hugh Prather

I am not somebody who finishes a book in one sitting. I have three unfinished books in my library to prove that. The only one I have ever done before is a book called “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” which is easily finished in 20 minutes.

However, this book, I did finish in one and a half hours sitting in the park in Marietta Square while Sharmila was at her art show. The book is written mostly as thoughts journaled by the write Hugh Prather.

It is a very quick read but full of some insights that the author has gone thru…

Here are some that resonated with me:

1. My anxiety does not come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it.

2. The key to motivation is to look at how far I have come rather than how far I have to go.

3. I believe that for almost everyone else life is also a mixture of unsolved problems, ambiguous victories and vague defeats – with very few moments of clear peace.

4. My trouble is I analyze life instead of live it.

5. Now that I know I am no wiser than anyone else, does this wisdom make me wise?

6. The number of things just outside the perimeter of my financial reach remains constant no matter how much my financial condition improves. With each increase in my income, a new perimeter forms and I experience the same relative sense of lack.

7. Don’t fight a fact, deal with it. Don’t discard your self, be more of it.

8. Most mistakes are corrected through increased awareness, which usually does not come without some discomfort.

9. The unstill part of the mind travels from one trivial issue to another, avoiding the present and avoiding love.

10. I can be faithful to my image or faithful to myself.

11. Most decisions, possibly all, have already been made on a deeper level than the sentence level of my mind and my going through a reasoning process to arrive at them seems at least redundant.

12. If the desire to do something is not accompanied by actual doing, then the desire is of not doing it.

13. I don’t think religion is an attainable subject for the intellect. I can only believe when I’m not talking about it.

14. I am noticing that when I am bored, I think I am tired of my surroundings but I am really tired of my thoughts.

15. If I feel disapproval of someone, if I find myself ignoring or turning away from someone in a group, I am probably avoiding in myself what this person represents that I believe is true about me.

16. There is no such thing as “best” in a world of individuals.

17. Whenever I find myself arguing for something with great passion, I can be certain I’m not convinced.

18. I find it almost impossible to make a strong declarative statement in conversation without feeling little nagging doubts and reservations.

19. I thought others’ liking me was a comment on me, but it is a comment on them.

20. If I feel compelled to answer every question, *I* am the one compelling me.

21. Silence can mean confidence. And mutual respect. Silence can mean live and let live: the appreciation that I am I and you are you. The silence is an affirmation that we are already together – as two people. Words can mean that I want to make you into a friend and silence can mean that I accept your already being one.

22. An argument is always about what has been made more important than the relationship.

23. I get along with people a lot better when I recognize that no one ever feels exactly the same about me or anyone else from one moment to the next.

24. All acquaintances are passing.

25. Perceptions are not of things but of relationships.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
6 May 2024

Number line representation in your mind

You might find this interesting. Close your eyes and try to count the numbers 1,2,3…. Do not count it verbally but visually eye thru the numbers from 1 onwards to 100.

Is that number line a straight line? Does it go up and down? Does it go left to right? Does it have colors?

Interestingly, we all have very different mental representation of the number line and we are still not sure how to explain it. Some part of it is definitely the way we read stuff. For example, for me and for most Westerners, the number line goes left to right. When asked, all the 20 students from Iran (studying in a US college) said their mental line went from right to left.

About 5% of the population even associate different colors in different parts of the line. Do you?

My line looks like the one I have drawn here. It goes left to right for the most part, steadily rises till 20 and then takes a sharp bend. 20-40 goes right to left. For most people, these breaks come at a multiple of 10 !!

For some unknown reason, I have a distinct breakpoint between 69 and 70. My mental eyes do not smoothly go from one number to the next – it makes a discrete jump to a point left and higher for 70.

After 100, the pattern repeats. On the negative side, I have no pattern. In fact, this can be explained by the fact that we learnt negatives much later in life. Negative numbers are so unnatural for us to think about (in real life negative number of objects are difficult to comprehend) that the brain consumes a lot of power to hold steady with negative numbers instead of fluently using memory.

Interestingly, when I look at the number line and traverse from left to right, somewhere around 7 is where I feel I am looking straight. 1-6 is on my left. 8 onwards is on my right.

How do you visualize your number line?

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
16 April 2024

Why the heck do we write 4 that way?

Given my love for numbers, lately I have started reading a book on where do our senses for numbers come from? Do animals understand numbers? (They do – but not the way we think). Does a child of 2 months understand the difference between 2 and 3? (You will be surprised!!)

Now I am trying to figure out why is it that in most cultures, we write 2 by repeating 1 in some fashion. Same for 3. But when it gets to 4, we go a very different way. And all cultures have uniformly decided to take a fork while representing 4.

The Roman notation is the most unintuitive. After denoting 2 as nothing but two of 1 and 3 as three of 1, to denote 4, first it introduces 5 !!! And then the understanding of subtraction!!

Why did they do that?

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
2 February 2024

Book Review: Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast

With the new coffeemaker at home, I am trying to learn the fine art of making different kinds of coffee, There is a lot of runway left in that learning. Wanted to pick up some of the theory and history behind coffee. (You might remember my three year journey into gins). I think it was Stephen Leitner who had pointed me to this book “Uncommon Grounds”.

Fascinating book. If not anything else, it showed how little I knew about coffee. Some of the highlights of the learnings include:

1. Coffee originated from the ancient land of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). We are not sure when though.
2. Roasting of beans is relatively new – sometime in the fifteenth century
3. Like gin in England, alcohol in general in the USA, coffee all over the world has a rich history of becoming popular only to be blamed for a lot of social ills and then getting banned. Which was usually followed by periods of surreptitious drinking and smuggling.
4. Growing up in India, I was aware of the coffee plantations in the south. What I was not aware of was that coffee made it to India with a Muslim pilgrim taping seven seeds to his stomach and smuggling them to south India during a “prohibition” period in the middle east.
5. Europeans were the ones to start adding milk to coffee while the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern folks still drink their coffee straight. It is theorized that this is because Europeans can tolerate milk while the folks in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas tend to be lactose intolerant.
6. The folks to adopt coffee last – the Scandinavians – ironically are the ones with highest per capita coffee consumption today.

Much of the book is dedicated to detailing how colonialism and slavery were intertwined and abetted by the coffee producing countries. Other than putting forward how unfairly the slaves and locals were treated by the colonials for profit, it also details some interesting history of the Cold War where USA and the CIA got deeply involved in the local politics of Latin American countries thru coffee economics (to stave off the fear of communism taking over).

Above all, when it comes to America, this book is an ultimate treatise on how consumer marketing evolved in the USA. Fascinating history of false claims, brilliant packaging, provocative ads, adoption of the practice of TV sponsorship, all the way to congressional hearings to peddle more of the black aromatic beans!

Another interesting fact: The total value of coffee traded today is larger than the GDP of over half the countries in the UN!!

While this has done nothing to improve my cappuccino foaming skills, I strangely feel smug while drinking a cup of coffee.

Enjoyable read!

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
27 September 2023

Book Review: Meltdown

by: Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcsik

I got to know about this book from the Bookclub group in our office. I was actually reading a different book. But the synopsis looked interesting enough that I paused on the other book and started reading this.

This book deals with catastrophic failures like the blowing up of Challenger, or the Deep Horizon blowout or the wrong movie announced as the winner at the Oscars … and tries to find out what are the common traits and how to avoid potential such failures in the future.

The key take away is to realize that a system needs to have two different traits to give rise to catastrophic failures. One is that the system has to be “complex”. By that it does not necessarily mean scale – but systems where their parts are more likely to interact in hidden and unexpected ways. When something goes wrong – multitude components fail and it is difficult to understand the root cause.

The other aspect is “tight coupling”. Loose coupling means there is enough slack that if one component fails, others won’t cascade. Tight means if one fails – others will start failing too. And it cannot be stopped. Ironically, safety systems are the biggest single source of catastrophic failure in complex, tightly coupled systems.

In wicked systems – not much feedback – (as opposed to kind systems – frequent feedback), this becomes even more problematic.

Couple of tricks the authors suggest include:

(*) Subject Probability Interval Estimates: instead of predicting yes or no or 99% vs 1%, predict at different intervals.

(*) Premortem – assume things have gone wrong. Now look back and predict what might have been the reasons

A quote I liked a lot: “We construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process the information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it. Unexpected or unlikely interactions are ignored when we make our construction.”

Some watch outs that are good pointers to corporate leaders too:

More often than not, we don’t take into account  how luck is often the reason systems have not broken down. We take that as a reason to believe the system is fine. (outcome bias)

Support dissenting opinions by speaking the last as a leader.

Our tendency for conformity can literally change what we see. Diversity in a team feels less familiar and feels less comfortable. There might be discomfort, but we tend to be more objective and are less likely to go along.

Homogeneous groups create comfortable feeling of familiarity. This unfortunately leads to doing less well in complex situations AND feeling confident about the same wrong decisions.

Some other interesting things: The most frequently used diversity programs didn’t increase diversity. In fact, they made firms less diverse. Voluntary diversity training is what yielded results. Managers need to feel it was their decision to participate.

Anyways, it is a very good read. Anybody will find some aha! moments from life and work in this.

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
18 May 2023

Book Review: The Courage to be Disliked

by: Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

I got to know about this book from a quote that my friend Roger Whitney had sent me.

This book is written as a conversation between the “Philosopher” and a young student (“Youth”). I assume it was written in this format to make it more readable and verbalize thru the questions of the Youth, the questions a reader might have. This format, however, did not land well with me. For one thing, I did not really have as many questions as the youth and therefore, the reading was a bit jerky. I would have rather read a normal essay style.

That said, one can learn a lot about Adlerian philosophy. And this is what Roger’s quote was all about.

A few things you might learn about Adlerian philosophy

1. It takes the approach that the past does not matter. This would go against other philosophers like Freud who believed that our current behavior is because of what has happened in the past – called etiology. Adler argues that our behavior is entirely governed by what we want in the future (teleology).
2. All problems are interpersonal relationship problems. Feelings of inferiority are subjective assumptions based on our own comparison with others. On this one, the authors give a nice counterexample of short people. Such values, Adler argues are based on social context. Thus it is really a choice we make. Adler has an interesting way of putting things – Humans are all equal. But not the same.
3. There is an interesting trick Alder goes into – “Discard other people’s task”. Basically, it goes into you do what you need to do. If something is not your task to do, do not worry or think about it. This means not only not seeking recognition but this also means do not fret about what your child is not doing even after you have reminded them. That is their task to do. Worrying will only make you unhappy on something you cannot control. This part of the book does a good job on how to reconcile this with what would therefore then be good parenting exercises.
4. The following quote appealed to me – “Unless one is unconcerned by other people’s judgments, has no fear of being disliked by other people, and pays the cost that one might never be recognized, one will never be able to follow through in one’s own way of living. The courage to be happy is also the courage to be disliked.”
5. In Adlerian philosophy, a sense of belonging is something that one can attain only by making an active commitment to the community of one’s own accord and not simply by being there.
6. In another interesting concept, Adler says “Do not praise”. In the act of praise, there is the aspect of it being “the passing of judgment by a person of ability on a person of no ability”. Instead of praise or rebuke, there should be active “encouragement” that can only come from a horizontal relationship.
7. Adler defines happiness as the feeling of contribution.
8. And finally, Adler believes that life, in of itself, has no meaning. Whatever meaning life has must be assigned to it by the individual.

27 December 2022

Red Rackham’s Treasure

Tintin is not a comic book that is very common in the USA. Although, Steven Spielberg did make a movie out of it. In India (or for that matter, anywhere in Europe too), Tintin was part and parcel of growing up.

The protagonist was ably supported by the warm-at-heart (a big part of the heart warmed by his penchant for whiskey) Captain Haddock (of the “ten thousand thundering typhoons” fame), the well meaning, hard of hearing but brilliant scientist Cuthbert Calculus (with his pendulum and “westwards, westwards” refrain), the bumbling twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (“to be precise, with a “p” as in psychology and without a “p” as in Venezuela” is the way they would clarify) and of course the ever faithful dog Snowy.

With Natasha back in her home and Nikita out with her friends, Sharmila pulled up a book to relax in the evening. And I pulled out the “Red Rackham’s Treasure”.

You would think that after 45 years or so, I would not find it as interesting. But you would be wrong. That is the brilliance, I sense, of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi.

While as a child I focused on the story line, these days, at my age, I focus a little more on the creation itself – how the cartoonist is telling and drawing the story.

One of my favorite pictures is the one in the inset. The quick background is this: Before our favorite team would go out on a treasure hunt, the story was leaked in the Daily Reporter. Which infuriated them no end and caused a great deal of inconvenience.

When they came back, the same reporter accosted them with all sorts of questions. Captain, taken by surprise, was livid to see the reporter again. But on second thoughts, he came up with a cunning idea. He introduced Calculus as his secretary and let him take the interview. If you remember, Calculus was very hard of hearing. So the conversation – if you can call that, more like two independent monologues – that ensued is hilarious. The ever increasingly agitated reporter would ask one more pertinent question. And Calculus would invariably answer a completely different question with absolutely no bearing to the real context, whatsoever.

The end of it is seen in the inset. Calculus walks away very satisfied with the interview. The journalist was left in a complete tizzy. But the best part is the smug, mischievous smile on the impish Captain’s face all the while listening to the conversation peeking from around the corner. You can almost see him chafing his palms!!

That was a good read!!

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
17 December 2022

Book Review: Are you thinking clearly?

Written by two journalists – Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren – this book will intrigue you if you care to understand how poorly we all think. The self-conviction we have about how clearly we think (albeit with some humility that we might be wrong at the edges) could not be more misplaced.

The authors fairly comprehensively cover the various variables that often cloud our thinking – yes, simply feeling hungry (or hangry as the authors say), make people make very different decisions. This has been proven by multiple researches.

It gets into how your thinking is influenced by what you eat (thru the gut), what language was your first language that you learnt, simple marketing tricks… about 29 such factors.

In the end, you will realize that you are not one uniform identity that thinks and makes decisions consistently. Far from it. We are all social beings that change our thinking or decision based on who we are with. Or who we were with.

I have to admit that while reading the book chapter by chapter, I found no “flow”. It was like moving from one independent variable that affects your thinking to the next one in a very disjointed way.

But in the end, you realize that – that is the exact point the authors are trying to make. Our thinking is not a smooth one – it gets affected by different variables and circumstances at different times. At least this helps you understand what is likely making our thinking murky even if we do not realize that.

I think the following excerpt from the book sums it up well…

“Despite what countless other books will tell you, positivity and optimism come with plenty of pitfalls – not least that they can make you overconfident, blinkered and gullible – and the relentless pursuit of happiness will likely only make you miserable. Nor is a high IQ the foolproof solution it is claimed to be – it doesn’t make us immune to bias, prejudice or mental illness, and it won’t automatically make us challenge our own thinking. To make the most of our intelligence, we also need intellectual openness, flexibility and conscientiousness as well as emotional stability and intelligence. And if you believe love will clear your head, think again. We all know how muddled and mindless that can make us.”

Category: Books | LEAVE A COMMENT
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.)