Half-yearly Book Round-up

I read 24 books in the first half of the year.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

Bell Labs was one of a kind organisation that launched the information age. Developed as an organisation that was meant to help solve problems that AT&T faced such as: how do we keep telephone poles from rotting, what kind of insulation would ensure that the telephone wires don’t need a constant replacement; they focused on the science rather than just the engineering. The focus on basics divorced from the need to think about commercial viability ultimately delivered. Radar, Transistor, Unix, C, Laser, fibre optics and many more innovations that came out of the labs. This book chronicles the rise and fall of the organisation. An incredible read.

Hear your body whisper by Otakara Klettke

The book is a series of short essays about various topics such as diet, exercise, mediation, etc. While the book is very easy to read and some of the advice is very coherent and simple to follow, not all of it is backed by scientific explanations. Some of it is there just because it worked well for the author. One needs to be quite careful when talking about an experience because it may be heavily influenced by several variables that might not be the same for all. An interesting read at a short 150 pages, definitely give it a read.

The Almanack of Naval Ravikanth by Eric Jorgensen

This book is a clusterfuck of philosophies that often contradict themselves. He starts out talking about capitalism and the step to wealth creation, ostensibly the steps that he followed to create wealth and moves purely into the realms of philosophy. He talks about happiness, life and many other things. The second part of the book out and out contradicts the first part. This book is filled with a series of insights, some borrowed and some perhaps his own. Either way, it never becomes a coherent whole.

Don’t read. If you can, go to goodreads.com and give it a 2-star rating. Will save others from being misled.

Beginners Pluck: Build your life of purpose and impact now by Liz Forkin Bohannon

This book is the story of a company called Seeko Designs masquerading as a book filled with life lessons. She tries to relate each lesson with incidents in her life which taught her those lessons. The first half of the book is indeed interesting and insightful. Many of the lessons are rather useful and a great template for any individual to follow, not just for business. Having said that, the second half of the book is more storytelling and fewer insights. Also, it feels quite forced, along with the non-chronological timeline, which takes a lot away from the book. Overall, worth a read.

Promised Land by Barack Obama

The book chronicles the journey of Barack Obama from his childhood till the end of his first term. It was convenient that his first term concluded right around the time that they killed Osama Bin Laden which is the point at which the book ends. A second part might arrive towards the end of 2021. The book touches upon specific policy initiatives that Obama championed and the actual politics that he had to deal with both in the USA as well as on the global stage to get things done. It was interesting in parts but rather dry in others. At almost 800 pages, it is also a very long book. Unless you are extremely interested in US politics, I would certainly not recommend it.

Hear your brain whisper by Otakara Klettke

After, Hear your body whisper which I had read earlier in the year I decided to buy this book. In her previous book, science was lacking but at least the suggestions provided were common sense and related to real life. Trying to explain how the brain works in 100 pages is a joke. There are tons of books that explain the functioning of the brain in an accessible manner. This book was an attempt to dumb it down to a whole new low. I would certainly not advise reading this book.

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich

WEIRD - People who are born in Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic countries have a psychology that is different from the rest of the world which enables them to have the institutions that they have.

Psychologists tend to see psychology as hardware delivered by genetics on which the software of culture is loaded. The author makes a case for culture driving psychology more than genetics. For example, genetics would not prefer large cities because germs can spread easily and devastate populations. I think none of us needs to be schooled in that after 2020. But it was the culture that led to the rise of cities.

An interesting book, which is definitely worth a read. Having said that, the author has ignored several aspects of history due to which I consider the analysis incomplete. Nevertheless an interesting read.

Auto Pilot by Andrew Smart

The book delves into the need for humans to have idle time to be able to process what they have learnt and to be creative. He uses a mix of scientific data that is available along with philosophical arguments to make the case for more idle time. The book ends with a rant on capitalism and the destruction that it has wrought on the planet.

Very short and interesting book!

The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel

We consider returns on money based on principle and interest but there is another key ingredient that we forget. Feelings. Whether we stay invested in an investment or not is dependent on how we feel about it, the story that people are telling us and so on. The author argues that while we would like to look at finance like Physics, it is not, because it is driven by how people think and feel rather than just the formulae.

An incredible book and a must-read.

Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change by Marc Benioff

Trailblazers starts with Marc Benioff sharing his personal story of what drove him towards business and how he got started with SalesForce. But once we get past that story, several stories are cherry-picked to fit the theme of the chapter. Not all of them are flattering but nevertheless, they seem crafted to make Salesforce and all the people within look holier than thou. Also, after reading the book, I think Salesforce is a glorified services company.

Personally, I found the book too preachy.

Unworthy Republic – The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt

I often asked the question - Most Americans are some of the stupidest people to have walked the planet, how did that nation get so rich? This book does a great job chronicling the robbery of an entire continent from its indigenous people. It covers the dispossession of lands by Americans under the garb of bringing civilisation to the south. Indians were tracked, hunted and exterminated systematically. To add insult to injury they were asked to compensate for the deployment of the American army.

A painful and necessary read.

Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven Strogatz

I am really glad that found this book on a reading list and despite having read several books on mathematics in general decided to read it. Steven chronicles the stories of those who created calculus and what caused them to discover it. He weaves through the stories of Archimedes, Lagrange, Newton, Fourier and several others who made their lasting contributions to the field. I thoroughly enjoyed this book which was as much about history as about mathematics.

I would definitely recommend it - except for the one chapter in the middle where he dives into Logarithms and teaches it.

How to Astronaut: An Insider's Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts

I would not call this book a must-read but if questions like what are the pre-checks that a person must undergo before taking a space flight and how do you poop in space rouse your curiosity, this is a book that answers them quite humorously. He shares a lot of stories of his time on the International Space Station and how it made him see our place in the universe differently. If there is one thing I take away from this book it was his argument for creation - Every system moves from a state of order to disorder thanks to entropy. In such a system if millions, perhaps billions of atoms, molecules had to organise into a being, this could not have just happened by chance.

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph

Marc was the founder of Netflix who had his company taken away from him by Reed Hastings - his angel investor. This book chronicles the founding of the company right until the IPO in the early 2000s. The pivot to online and the company that we all know today is not really covered in great detail. Nevertheless, it is an interesting read about the birth and evolution of a company that endured the dot-com bust and came through several pivots to be the company that it eventually became. I would certainly recommend this one if you are into startups.

Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician's Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine by Steven Hatch

Snowball in a blizzard is a euphemism used by doctors to describe what finding a tumour in a mammogram could seem like. If medicine is science, it is far from perfect and in many cases testing excessively might result in doctors prescribing unnecessary medications rather than just letting things be. I loved how Dr Hatch takes apart several misconceptions and also illustrates how uncertain a doctor could be when providing a diagnosis or prognosis. I enjoyed reading the book.

Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India by K. S. Komireddi

This book is a short political history of India. While the large part of this book is dedicated to chronicling how Modi has systematically shredded the secular fabric of the nation, the book also chronicles the excesses of Congress which brought us to this place. He also talks briefly about the emergence of the Kashmiri separatist movement and the role that Indian politics played in fuelling the anger. It is a pretty depressing read but a necessary one as well.

Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner

Dr Gildener shares 5 stories of people who were in therapy with her. She calls them Psychological Superheroes because of the odds that they had to overcome to sort themselves out psychologically. I enjoyed reading the book and learnt a lot about therapy as I was reading it. The beauty is that it is the same whether you are rich or poor, the mind is a hard puzzle to solve.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it.

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova

Maria is a writer who decides to learn Poker in a year. The things she learns through the process and insights she gleaned about human nature through this journey spanning continents and several poker tournaments is what this is about. I enjoyed reading this book, which in parts get very technical. Definitely worth a read.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

If you watched the movie Independence Day, you would have noticed when the aliens arrive, the people just lose focus. All of them are busy running, I don't know where, or looting shops. It's total anarchy.

When Hitler attacked London he expected something similar would happen. London was bombed and thereafter the people showed resilience like never seen before. Bars had signs which said, "We may not have any window but our spirits are still as good!"

Rutger Bregman builds an argument against the notion that humans are always likely to be reduced to animals and that there is more good and generosity in humans and what we are led to believe by the cynics and pessimists.

I would highly recommend this book! 6 Stars.

Early Indians by Tony Joseph

Where did the people of India arrive from? How did the human species arrive here? Are we one race or intermingling of many races? This book dives into genetic data to map the arrival of the first people in India and charts out how the different waves of arrivals took place in India and how we the Indian people came to be. A thoroughly fascinating book that I enjoyed reading.

Inferior: The true power of women and the science that shows it by Angela Saini

Science has for the most part been written and influenced by men. This in turn has been used to describe women as the fairer sex, read weaker. From the size of her brain to her sexual appetite to the aggression; women are routinely shown to be less able. Study after study shows this not in fact true but that this is how science has chosen to see women.

Angela Saini constructs an argument for why women are not in fact inferior and that centuries of patriarchal conditioning has resulted in even science being skewed against women.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

An anthropologist writes about finance and decimates it. I loved this book. I have another 7 months to go but I am already certain that if there is one book I am definitely going to recommend this year, it is going to be this one.

Debt came before money. Money was a consequence of raising armies and even the entire banking and financial system today hinges on debt.

The author dives into many facets of debt - From the fact that it is assumed that one must pay their debts - but then is the interest not an admission of the fact that there is a risk that it may not get paid?

Debt is universal but the assumption that one should be able to earn a return just because they have money is fallacious, is it not?

An incredibly fascinating book that veers between history, philosophy, government, finance and anthropology. I highly recommend this.

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple

Growing up in Delhi, my entire childhood was spent hearing about a road called Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where my mother used to work. I did not pay much attention to the name or who it signified.

The Last Mughal is the story of Bahadur Shah Zafar who was the last Mughal king to occupy the throne in Delhi. When the army from Meerut killed the British officers and decided to rise up against the British, they went to Zafar looking for his leadership to take on the British and rid the land of them.

A well-researched book put together with details from the correspondences of the normal citizenry and the throne from the National Archives in India (soon to be destroyed) provides an intimate look at the uprising of 1857 from the perspective of the people and Bahadur Shah Zafar. A blow by blow account, this should be a prescribed textbook.

Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger Jr.

The book chronicles the rise of the aviation industry in the United States. From the time of the first flight to transporting the first passengers on chairs placed in the back of mail planes to the rise of the modern airline industry.

Winding its way across almost a century, the book shows how fragile the airline industry has always been and how the giants of one era fell in another. The book makes for a fascinating read although a huge portion of it seems to be dedicated to Frank Lorenzo who was running 4 airlines simultaneously at one point in the US, only to see all of them struggle and disappear.

If the aviation business is of great interest, I would recommend this book to you.