Books I read in 2017

2017 has been a good year for books. I have read more books this year than any year in the past. I think the reason could be that I was reading less fiction. It helped that I decided I would not read fiction first without reading a little bit of non-fiction first - every single day (I did slip a few times though). Surprising just how much it worked. Because once you open a book that's interesting then one wants to read more and more. It could also be, that I have become more discriminating in my taste for fiction !

Anyway - I have read  30 books. For a person who rarely goes beyond 10 (fiction not counted) it is a huge jump. I have thought about keeping up the same pace next year but have decided not to keep a target lest I worry more about the numbers and less about understanding the content !! Some books need lots rumination and I find it always helps to go about them slowly and thoughtfully.

In this post I will only be mentioning a few books that made an impact. I have not reviewed all of them but have mentioned all the ones that stood out for me. They are listed here in no particular order.

1. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Increasingly in a world filled with stimuli that asks us to respond immediately this book encourages the opposite. It talks about having non-interrupted periods of time wherein one is involved in deep work. Work that fulfills us, work that allows us to create. It resonated with me.

Key Point -

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

However achieving deep work is not easy. One needs to rewire and train the brain to be able to resist distractions and develop the ability to concentrate intensely. Deep work -  is increasingly important in a world where even if you are talented and skilled - you need to produce.

From the book -

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy
  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
The book suggests how to schedule such deep work  periods for oneself in an era of increasing distractions to create fulfilling work for oneself. It gives suggestions on how to retrain one's brain to concentrate and how to manage one's schedule for different work types / personalities.

My take : Must read. It is a good idea to differentiate one's day from that of a maker to that of a manager or both. That way one can schedule periods of deep work appropriately. More info at this link - Maker vs Manager from Farnam Street.  

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I think the review by Bill Gates is the best for this book ...
https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/When-Breath-Becomes-Air

My take : Read - if you want to know the life of a neurosurgeon who battles terminal cancer and tries to answer the basic questions of life - What makes a life worth living?  What makes life worth living in the face of death?

3. The Smartest Kids in the World - by Amanda Ripley

Even though the focus of the book is comparing the education system in the US versus that of the countries with students who the top PISA exam; this book is relevant if you have children (or work with children) and want them to succeed academically and beyond.

Some key points -

1. Praising all the time is not good for children ( Read Carol Dweck's - Mindset ) because while self-esteem is important it needs to come from hard work and authentic accomplishment. Mere flattery will not boost self-esteem and may do more harm instead.

2. It is better if children are allowed to fail when they are still children. The lessons about hard work, persistence, integrity, and consequences—will serve a child for decades to come.

3. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. However they should not be frustrated or despairing.

4. All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world.

5. Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher-order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, for example, to detect patterns and to make informed guesses. Those kinds of skills has rising value in a world in which information was cheap and messy.

6. Math is a language of logic. It is a disciplined, organized way of thinking. There is a right answer; there are rules that must be followed. More than any other subject, math is rigor distilled. And rigor is very important for accomplishments.

7. Mastery of math never made anyone get to work on time, finish a thesis. No, those skill sets have more to do with motivation, empathy, self-control, and persistence. These are core habits, workhorse traits sometimes summed up by the old-fashioned word character. 

A quiet drive or grit helps children grow even if there are temporary setbacks when understanding math. These are life skills not just math skills.

My take : Read - if you want to understand how to help children succeed in life. 

4. The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life by Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot

Entertaining and informative. The idea of chance clusters due to randomness and how it could affect a cancer study was illuminating. Like most statistics books it touches on the usage of averages - wherein an average is just an abstraction.

Suggests - Whenever you see an average, think: “white rainbow,” and imagine the vibrancy it conceals.

It also helps to keep these things in mind when reading statistical numbers
  • Statistics is an exercise in coping with, and trying to make sense of, uncertainty, not in producing certainty. Suspect certainty when reading numbers.
  • What generally matters is not whether a number is right or wrong—they are often wrong—but whether numbers are so wrong as to be misleading.
My take : Read - if you would like to make sense of the statistical numbers that you see in every day life.

5. The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

The author - is a chess prodigy who also goes on to become martial artist. Along the journey we learn what guided his personal achievements and how to carve a path to excellence. The description of how Josh starts to absorb blows when being pummelled during the Tai Chi class and then being able to deconstruct the moves to help him master the art is fascinating.

Key points -

1. On Dirty Tricks - Handling dirty tricks is a part of the game. There will always be creeps in the world.

I thought this was very important. The dirty tricks played in chess (as well as in martial arts) took me aback. There's a whole science behind dirty tricks and how to subtly or overtly demotivate an opponent. Learning how to handle these, even ones you might not expect is crucial.

2. On preparation - The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain. We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed.

3. On relaxing and handling pressure  - Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line. The unconscious mind is a powerful tool, and learning how to relax under pressure is a key first step to tapping into its potential.

4. On learning - The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives.

My take : Must Read - if you want to learn how to learn, be a life long learner and achieve top results.

6. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

I find myself unable to distill thoughts about this book into a cohesive summary. Superficially it reads just like a story. However it conveys a lot more. This book narrates the life story of Siddharta and his journey to know the answers to the questions of life.

Simple but profound; just like the book says - "Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom".

This book made me think, pay attention to passing moments and be still (as much as I can).  Each time I read, different sentences made me pause.

My take : Read - if you want to think about life. Re-reads give new insights every time.

7. How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff & Irving Geis

A Bill Gates recommendation that I am finally getting around to reading now. I enjoyed this book. Instructive with case studies to highlight how statistics can be used to befuddle the issue and influence a view point in a desired manner.

The authors show examples of distortions using  -

1. Misleading averages and ranges
(You might take 61 degrees as a comfortable annual mean, giving you a choice in California between such areas as the inland desert and San Nicolas Island off the south coast. But you can freeze or roast if you ignore the range. For San Nicolas it is 47 to 87 degrees but for the desert it is 15 to 104.)

2. Small sample size

3. Missing data

4. Correlation does not mean causation
(You can show that clear weather is more dangerous than foggy weather. More accidents occur in clear weather, because there is more clear weather than foggy weather. All the same, fog may be much more dangerous to drive in.)

4. Bias (the laboratory with something to prove for the sake of a theory, a reputation, or a fee; the newspaper whose aim is a good story; labor or management with a wage level at stake)

5. Shifting base that accounts for the trickiness of adding discounts
(When a hardware jobber offers “50% and 20% off list,” he doesn’t mean a seventy per cent discount. The cut is sixty per cent since the twenty per cent)

6. Different ways of representing a figure
(You can, for instance, express exactly the same fact by calling it a one per cent return on sales, a fifteen per cent return on investment, a ten-million-dollar profit, an increase in profits of forty per cent (compared with 1935- 39 average), or a decrease of sixty per cent from last year.)

To quote the book - "A well-wrapped statistic is better than Hitler’s “big lie”; it misleads, yet it cannot be pinned on you."

My take : Must Read - To understand the many ways in which you can be fooled !

8. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street by John Brooks

This book has been in my TBR pile forever it seems like. Another Bill Gates's recommendation - It is his favorite business book and was given to him by Warren Buffett. He says it is Warren Buffett's favorite business book too.

This book has 12 tales of business adventures and they are eye openers. It shows how people behave and how their behaviour affects business. Businesses may change, technologies may change but human nature at its core does not. And so even though one may shake one's head when reading some of the stories ultimately, we do not always make rational choices and this shows up in business. Beware though each tale is a long read.

The stories are -

1. Stock market crash in 1962 and how the exchanges got together to prevent the panic from causing too much damage. (Astonished me no end !!). There was no reason for the panic but it ensued in mayhem nevertheless.

2. How Xerox made a dangerous and risky bet on photocopying. It worked but then they got complacent.

3. Over hyped Edsel Car launch failure by Ford. Small cars had gotten popular in the interim.

4. Non compete/Intellectual property rights/Trade Secrets - How a Goodrich engineer was almost prevented from working for a competitor due to the trade secrets he knew.

5. Pricing fixing within GE and failure of its internal communication.

6. Insider Trading - Texas Gulf Sulfur employees making money by trading based on inside information.

7. Piggly Wiggly - story of how a publicly traded company can be undermined by outsiders who manipulate the markets (Chilling !).

8. Federal income tax - A look at American taxation and how it has become very convoluted (and unfair?).

9. Sterling crisis - A strong bank alliance between various countries kept the pound from being devalued for a considerable time. (It was devalued later).

10. Market Fraud - A company was leveraged on falsified receipts. Trading was done using these fraudulent receipts as collateral. The exchange along with banks got together to ensure the customers did not lose everything. The customers got all their money back. Unusual.

11. Stockholders meetings.

12. Role of a person coming from public sector to private sector.

My take : Must Read - If you want to learn about unusual and cautionary business tales intertwined with human complexity.

9. So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

This book argues against following one's passion in work. If you try to follow your passion in your job, you will expect it to bring heaps of rewards and be interesting all the time. It says that the only way to succeed is to become extremely good at something i.e - focus on becoming "so good they can’t ignore you". This is career capital. Initially one will not have career capital. It takes time to build it. However once built - one has control over one's career trajectory.

Key Points -

1. Mindset - Craftsman Mindset vs Passion Mindset - Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

2. Danger of following one's passion - When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyper aware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness. Working right, therefore, still trumps finding the right work. Do what people are willing to pay for.

3. On career control - When no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting. But once you do have this capital, you’ve become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts.

4. On becoming good at your career - If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.

My take : Read if you want to understand the argument for career capital. You may or may not agree on the passion mindset but whatever path one follows one has to be so good that one cannot be ignored.

10. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Reading this book was like a treat ! Immensely enjoyable. Not for nothing has this been awarded best book in Science & Technology category in Goodreads Choice Awards of 2017. (Okay okay I voted for it too !). The basic concepts of astrophysics are explained simply and in a straight forward easy manner.

Why the cosmos perspective is important is beautifully explained -

The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their “low contracted prejudices.” And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment.

The thrilling journey in the book talks about space as a hazardous place which forces us to reassess the value of all humans to one another, the common elements active in the universe, orbits of planets and stars, gravity and how Jupiter acts as a gravitational shield and ensures Earth is a place of  relative peace (cosmologically speaking), the different wavelengths used by telescopes and what one can infer from them, dark energy, dark matter (Dark matter is a mysterious substance that has gravity but does not interact with light in any known way), dark matter haloes (seriously!?) and how the next generations may see less than we do, as the growing expansion of the universe may take things beyond the visible edge. Fascinating !!

This point captured my attention too -

The twentieth-century American theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler said it best, summing up Einstein’s concept as, “Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”

My take : Absolute Must Read for a fun-filled dive into the world of the cosmos without any equations. 

Some other good books that I read :

1. Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski

My take : Read if you are interested to know about physics in every day life.

2. The CS Detective by Jeremy Kubica

My take : Read if interested in learning about algorithms explained using a story. I read it more from curiosity to see how algorithms were used in a narrative.

3. Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

My take : Read if you want self help for starting and keeping habits.

4. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

My take : The title says it all. Read if you want to get hints on where one goes wrong while talking to children. This book has convenient comic-strip-type-panels which shows common ways a parent may behave vs the better way to talk/behave in a situation. Very very helpful.

5. NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

Explanatory book which combines understanding the psychology of children along with the physiological changes. The true cost of sleep deprivation is mentioned in detail.

My take : Read if as a parent you would like to understand what makes your child behave the way he/she does and how you can be supportive.

6. The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

My take: Read if you want to know the tumultuous history behind Bayes Rule.

Women Techmakers Community Reception - #GDDIndia - Impressions

I got an invite to go to the community reception for women techmakers the day before the #GDDIndia 2017 Event at BIEC.  The reception was held at Taj Vivanta from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm on Nov 30th.

My impressions of the community meet at Taj --
  • This is mainly a networking event. 
  • Men can also be a part of the women techmakers group. Men who believe in diversity.
  • Google engineers circulate around the room giving some glimpse into their area of expertise and the sessions/trainings they will be doing in the actual GDD. I remember the brief chat with Todd Burner the most. He was going to be part of the Live Coding session with Firebase on Day 2.
  • During the brief talk by Sebastian it was mentioned there was no woman Google Developer Expert ! Surprising but something to note and aspire to.
  • Some experiential areas - the photo booth, exercise bike competition.
  • Free food and drinks. But of course - this is a google event after all !!!
  • I met so many students I felt like I had walked into an alternate reality. It was flattering to be asked which college I was attending multiple times but I blame it on the mood lighting and the fact that about 70% of attendees seemed to be students (who were also founding startups) !! 
  • ENERGY !!! So many of the attendees are working on different ideas in different domains and have jumped into the foray of startups and are walking their talk. It was exhilarating listening and talking to them.

Google Developer Days - #GDDIndia - 2017 - Impressions

Attended GDD India 2017 on Dec 1, Dec 2 - and it was a great experience all round. Could have done more networking perhaps but for an introvert like me whatever happened was satisfactory !

This is an invite based event. No idea how many people apply but in each and every mail it is re-iterated that there is a long wait list due to overwhelming interest.  If one is not planning to attend  they ask that you send a mail to them.
The queues at BIEC were pretty long. Additionally there were people who were on the wait-list and were standing aside. When I went in, there were around 50-60 people in that area.

People came from all over India and some from outside India too. That's some dedication !
A guy I was chatting to at the conference mentioned it was a paid event outside India. Did not check the veracity of that but in India it was free. All one needed was an invite and the confirmation code.

It was mentioned in keynote speeches on both days that this was the biggest event so far. It was pretty crowded. Although I do know that the salesforce conference is very crowded too.

My impressions of the GDD (2 days) --

Negatives

1. Crowded
I did not expect it to be that crowded. One can argue that it offers better networking opportunities but I still thought it was too crowded. On the 2nd day people were being turned away from the design workshop.

2. Wifi issues
Due to the sheer volume - in the trainings there were issues with wifi when working with the codelabs. Yes, the engineers got it working most of the time - still it was a little frustrating.

3. Certification Lounge
I went to the lounge to ask about the Data Engineer certification track. The lady who gave a brief background of the 3 tracks was good. And then she said for more details you can ask so-and-so.

And that guy was completely disinterested. Don't know what his problem was. Brushed me off by saying everything is available online. Well that completely defeats the purpose of having the  lounge itself right ?? Even GDD is not really required. After all - codelabs are available online !!!!

Anyway; inspite of asking more questions - I got nowhere. Since he was chatting with the previous person amicably - either it was a gender issue or he decided that I was wasting his time with just one look. Annoying.

Positives

1. The ratio of women attending GDD was 36%. Highest in all GDD events so far !

2. Got to meet a wide variety of people. From students, professors, marketing people, product mangers, developers, founders etc.

3. Trainings were really valuable and so were the sessions. Sessions are available online now.

4. Keynote on Day 2 was exceptional.
  • The brief talk with NIRAMAI founder Geetha Manjunath was very interesting. NIRAMAI  is building a non-invasive method of detecting breast cancer at early stages.
  • Sowmya Subramanian's talk on inclusive design was excellent. The talk was not pedantic but fun with relevant insights for each point. 
Touched all kinds of areas
  • Airbags in cars
  • Youtube for kids
  • Cheetos
  • Emojis
  • Inherent Bias 
Very engaging while reiterating the importance of inclusive design.

Reminded me of the soap dispenser that would not dispense soap for darker people but if a tissue was kept below it - it dispensed the liquid soap ! Definitely not inclusive design.

How kids saw youtube.

5. The session on improving your networking skills by Jozef Vodička was awesome !!!!
It was a short session but full of valuable nuggets !
  • A very very simple 2 word ice breaker - Business or Vacation ?
Couple of questions that can help start or keep the conversation going
  1. On which activity are you spending maximum time now ?
  2. What habit are you trying to inculcate now ?
The words I am using are not exactly the same but I think they convey the general idea - this was a session that was really worth attending.

6. The sandbox area with its demos, codelabs, android things, IoT demo, meet a googler, women techmarkers etc was informative. Met more google engineers at these points and it was something to listen to them talk about their products/work and their patience with the numerous queries !

7. During the sessions there were screens on the side which showed the live transcription of the speaker's talk. Fabulous marketing !

8. Goodies - T-shirts, Wallet by Women Techmakers, Bag, IoT kit, Android kit etc.

9.  After party ! :) Free food and drinks .. and Raghu Dixit on the live band. Need I say more ?

All in all - It was a wonderful experience and if GDD happens next year would love to attend it !

Are we there yet ?

There is a book that comes to my mind again and again at odd moments. It is not a philosophical book or a religious book. Nor is it a tome filled with nuggets of wisdom. Not a biography or a memoir. Strangely, it is an early reader book that spans about 10 pages with about as many lines.  It is a book I had to read a zillion times to my child.

The book is titled "Are we there yet ?" and it reminds me of the journey of life; chasing the answer to that same eternal question. 


In the book Mickey and his group want to go to the Sandy Beach which is just a mile away. They miss the road to the beach and instead go the other way .. and the journey begins ...

Sandy Beach 1 mile, Dry Desert - 10 miles.

Then the question -

Are we there yet ? No ! This is not the beach ! :) 

And they go on ...
Sandy Beach 11 miles, Rain Forest - 100 miles...
Sandy Beach 111 miles, Antarctica - 1000 miles...
All the way to back to -
Sandy Beach 1 mile, Dry Desert - 10 miles .......
where they take the correct turn and end up at the beach they wanted to go in the first place.

At every stage there is a route back to the Sandy Beach and they consistently miss this turn.

To me the entire 10 page book is an allegory of life. The Sandy Beach is the ultimate enlightenment and the other stops are whatever we crave in life - status, money, fame, possessions, power. Basically any state that doesn't give a sense of lasting peace or a permanent "Yes" to the question "Are we there yet ?" or "Have I arrived ?" (To word it differently).

It seems a little naive and perhaps subtly condescending to say - status, money, fame, possessions, power are not the ultimate goals. But generally speaking; is there is a threshold when we say we have enough money? Or we have enough material possessions? There is always something more to buy, there is always more money to earn, more places to see, more power to wield, more followers to get, more more more ........ It is a never ending quest. No, at least I do not consider it the ultimate destination.

The ultimate destination or nirvana if you will; does not mean an end to experiences nor is it the end of pursuit. It does mean that what you achieve and the joy of achievement is independent of the need for validation - be it internal or external.

It is like enjoying the beach for its own sake - rather than racing through the experience to put up a selfie/picture to show you are enjoying. The act of sharing the picture itself is trivial. However there is a difference in putting up a picture to share your happiness with your friends vs putting up a picture to show you are enjoying.

And so - when I look at life - I know my answer to that question is:  "No - This is not the beach". I am still journeying (or lost ? ) ...... and that question still haunts me.

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