Oct 31, 2018

American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane

Picked up the book - "American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane", at fall book sale organized by Friends of Chester County Library this October. Used book sales are tempting and I felt like a child in the toy store. It was amusing to see entire works of great writers at such a bargain price. Entire works of Chruchill/Lincoln/Durant's history were up for grabs at 20 bucks. It was a deal hard to resist but I managed to resist given the time and space restrictions. Also the realization that all these volumes can fit in my kindle helped me be "rational" this time. But I am pretty sure if I knew I am going to be around the area for next five years I would have got at least a few home. And I might very well, let's see.

The reason I picked this book was that even after spending quite sometime in US I don't  know the 101s of American politics and I thought American Sketches will help me with that. And I became Walter Issacson's fan after reading Steve Jobs biography last year. Same reason why Albert Einstein's and Leonardo Da Vinci's biographies are on the "to read" list. 

American Sketches is a collection of articles/speeches Walter Issacson wrote for Time and other magazines. It reminded me of collection of articles from Marathi editors like Govindrao Talwalkar and Kumar Ketkar, I read when I was in school. I don't know how many Indian editors write non-fiction books but I think publishing books is a good way to have a larger audience. I know Girish Kuber and Sunjay Awate are doing fine work with it in Marathi at least. With more people reading and services like Amazon I think there must be good market for non-fiction in India. And that would be sure way to help Marathi thrive.

What did I like about the American Sketches - 

1)Explanation of politics of American founders. How they came together and compromised for a generally accepted constitution. Role played by Ben Franklin. Why he thought "being able to compromise" was one of his strengths. Some lessons there. 

2)Henry Kissinger and realism. I think Kissingers tome - "Diplomacy" is a must read for everyone interested in geopolitics. It's a daunting book, I wish to get to one day. 

3)Einstein's out of box thinking and importantly knowing "what's inside the box" before venturing out. That's a sign of a creative person. 

4)Liked the essay on how to monetize newspaper content online. Being in charge of Time meant that author had to think hard about this topic and it shows in the thoughts expressed.

5)Woody Allen interview. Did not understand what makes him think the way he does, but gives glimpse into "व्यक्ती तितक्या प्रकृती". 

One complain I have about this book is that its I find it odd to read about politics, physics, technology and journalism in one book. I didn't know much about journalists and skipped reading about them and will get to it sometime.

Oct 13, 2018

The Rational Optimist - Matt Ridley

Naval Ravikant suggested "The Rational Optimist" in his podcast with Tim Ferris. I read few blog posts and interviews by the author Matt Ridley and found him to be a effective communicator. Naturally I had high hopes from "The Rational Optimist" and it lives to them. It's a captivating account of human ingenuity and ability to exchange ideas. It's also an account on how dooms day advocates run the show now and have been doing so for long time. 

"When ideas have sex" is the prologue to the book. Same way two people mate to form a offspring, ideas combine to and further human progress. People are resilient and always find a way to solve hard problems. They do it by exchanging ideas. The idea exchange was made possible by "trade". It's a bottom up system, which when is controlled leads to decay, corruption and imminent collapse. The captivating prologue is followed by explanation of trade, rule of law, agriculture, triumph of cities, escaping the Malthusian trap, release of the slaves (fossil fuels), innovation. These chapters cite examples and examples of how trade leaves both parties enriched. Trade requires specialization, allowing one person to develop expertise and rely on lot of other people for most of the needs. Produce one and consume many. In gist these chapters explain why Britain (and later America) were world super powers. 

Ridley spends later part of the book discussing about - Africa and Climate change the greatest pessimists of today.  He makes case for increased use of fossil fuels and trade. He sure seems to be a climate science skeptic, but takes time to discuss the direst predictions and how technology and trade (idea exchange) can solve the problems. Or rather why technology is a must if we have to address the issues. 

What I learnt from the book - 

1)Fossil fuels helped stop slavery, increase forests. Supply is not going to end so soon. 
2)Tinkering/bottom up improvements drive innovation and not knowledge from "Universities". Nothing much has been achieved by Governments pumping in money for the "pursuit of science and technology". Rather why the first priority would be to learn something technical rather than languages (Art). Rather learn how to earn a living and then enjoy your free time in pursuit of poetry. 
3)Ridley correctly predicting that some means of contracts/exchange will be figured out even with countries with no strong institutions - like democracy and central banks - Crypto-currency/bitcoin 
4)British industries - especially cotton mills. Tilak/Ambedkar were so right about it, Gandhi was naive. 
5)Bio-fuels, wind mills even electric car batteries - not so green apparently. 
6)Oxycontin and trust worthiness. 
7)Flu viruses having motive to "live and spread". The reason why a virus would its host to live so that it can perpetuate more. 
8)How climate change may be taking away money/focus/energy from conservation efforts. Conservation efforts are mostly local and can be tracked/solved/mitigated locally. 

I think the book did not cover the following - 

1)Tribal humans. Which caused the two world wars, amounting to tremendous loss to life and property. 
2)Disputes and opposition to projects which disrupt local jobs, ecosystems and human lives. One example - increased air quality in Western cities due to offshoring of industrial units to developing countries. 
3)Moral/ethical issues. Like - Genetic modification may be all right but why shouldn't the consumers know that a product is GM or not?

A highly recommended book. Must ready for anyone who hates it when someone predicts dooms day soon. 

Aug 26, 2018


I bought Siddhartha when we were shopping for return gifts for daughters first birthday last year at Barnes and Nobel in Huntersville. I have heard only praises of Siddhartha from many people and have meant to read it for long. Vishal Sikka used to quote from the it lot in letters he sent to Infosys employees as an CEO. I read the translation by Rika Lesser.

Siddhartha is a small book, collection of thoughts in poetic form. It tells story of Siddhartha, a Brahmins son, who wants to understand meaning of life. In several chapters the book tells Siddhartha's journey to gain wisdom.

The story felt boring at the start but gained momentum in the middle. Liked Siddhartha's ever questioning mind and ability to "think, wait and fast." The book reminded me of the movie "Ship of Theseus" too. Learning to be in the moment and seeking our own wisdom/nirvana is the mantra of the book. I would add it to the category of - "What I talk when I talk about running" - i.e. a book that deserves to be re-read several times. 

Jul 22, 2018

The Catcher in the Rye

I read Bhalchandra Nemade's Kosla and Baki Shunya by Kamlesh Walawalkar some 9-10 years back. Both are inspired from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, very famous novel. I always wanted to read the book and got the copy I have at Mugs Coffee shop in Charlotte, summer of 2015. Got to read it now. Guess I let it wait for at least two summers.

The Catcher in the Rye is account of a depressed high school student, who is yet to find meaning to do anything worthwhile. I was reminded of Pathik from Rabindranath Tagore's Homecoming. Holden Caulfield is trying to find what he wants to do and fails. He fondly remembers his dead brother and loves his little sister. He smokes and drinks. And tries to appear cool and justify his failures to boring teachers and dry subjects. It's easy to judge Holden.

Salinger's writing style is awesome but the story is no big deal. I didn't find it great. If a movie was made of it, I won't go and watch it. One would like this novel when he is age 16 may be? Did not like the don't care, don't bother tone.

Jul 11, 2018

Rebel Talent

In Rebel Talent, behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School uses her research to assert the value of breaking rules at work and in life. Troublemakers pave way for new ways of thinking and work around constraints to arrive at novel solutions. Gino uses examples from military, restaurants and corporate life to name a few, to tell stories of rebel leaders and their path to success.

The book presents ideas of seeking new ideas, curiosity, thinking outside the box (resourcefulness), openness, confidence (being true to our inner voice) and engagement. Engagement being the sauce that binds the ideas and prep work together.
She concludes the book with eight principles of rebel leadership. If you are short of time, going over these should give a glimpse of working theory in the book.

I liked the book. It reminded me other book I read years back - Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management.