bookspluslife

May 27, 2018

Book: The Elephant and The Flea by Charles Handy

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:34 pm

imageThis was touted as a business book about how to succeed in large corporations as a (tiny) consultant but it has several surprises when you read it.

 

First, the story is very personal and is told by the son of a pastor. He has humility, emotions, and talks about himself in a very personal way that makes you instantly empathize with him.

 

Second, he has a nice flow of narration and it is like sitting next to an avuncular relative reminiscing about his life with a flannel robe and a pint in his hand perhaps. Not very like most of the grim business books, and definitely not the tone adopted by so many : ‘I know what you need to do, now read and learn’. Those two make the book stand apart, but if you do not like that in a business book, then you will be definitely disappointed with this one.

 

Now about the title –  Charles Handy talks about the fleas, the independent consultants, and the elephants, giant corporations where the fleas inevitably work on contract. I thought it is just a book about how the world has changed, how there are more fleas now than elephant constituents (workers in corporate empires) and how fleas can be effective going into the unfamiliar elephant world. It is all that, but a bonus is a personal peek into the life of Charles and what forces shaped it and what it did to him in terms of style and personality. He has this confidence imparting tone that makes you think that you know him – it is a rare gift. Add to that his self deprecating tone and clear thoughts on how he is totally unqualified for certain tasks because of his background and you end up liking him almost from the beginning of the book.

 

He teaches his principles from his life experiences, growing up as a son of a priest in rural backwaters of Ireland, and being disappointed by his father’s lack of ambition. His description of his father’s funeral and how he learns that his father’s life was hugely successful  is very touching and heartwarming. He seems to have the knack so brilliantly displayed by James Herbert of touching the right notes and making you warm up to him instantly. His retelling of his issues makes him not just vulnerable in your eyes but also endearing. He has also been leading the charge on defining what education should be like and has chaired many prestigious institutions. However, I began to wonder how much of management theory I really learned while reading the book.

 

He talks about the old corporations (old elephants) which had jobs for life, a very protected environment, endless profits because of oligopoly and what not. He talks about the modern corporations where it is a very different world, and the corporates who could not adapt to it died. Well written, with a clear vision and articulation.

 

But some of his views are out there. He argues that even though technology has transformed lives, fundamentally we are the same. He talks about however good the communication and ecommerce have become the logistics remains, and drivers, cooks and others will always be

needed. Good point, until you start thinking of driverless cars. I agree that people will be retrained and survive. He also bemoans the modern fascination with gadgets and what it is doing to the society. There is also a kernel of truth in it and there is some logic in saying that losing the personal touch (the mom and pop bakery around the corner, the handwritten letters, the train conversations) have all been irrevocably lost in some cases. His reminiscences (about, for instance, how he used to ring from Malaysia to England when he was in Shell and what it sounded like) add an inimitable human touch to the stories and make them come alive.

 

But when he laments about technology and intellectual assets, you realize how old fashioned he really is. One of the gentlemen of olden times, wishing for times when you can touch, feel and look at objects and things. Charming all the way, no doubt.

 

But he makes great points about the need to change and adapt since we are forced to anyway. And good points about how, even those who consider that they are worse off than their grandfathers will not like to go back to those times to live like them. Some of his points are very interesting. Like I said, I may not agree with many of them, but his points are well made. He talks of the evil of keeping shareholder value as the single most important criteria. If it were up to him, companies will have avuncular interest of employees at heart (even, if you read between the lines, when shareholder value is threatened) but it may not be practical. Leaving aside that, he makes great points of the shareholders – most of them anyway – are not the real ‘owners’ in the traditional sense. They, for instance, did not even pay their money to the company at all, having bought the shares in a secondary market.

 

Also nice are his laments about the fear when he became independent and how he continually tries to find meaning in life. Masquerading as a corporate book, this is simply an erudite old man’s reminiscences and if you are fooled by the title into thinking it is a business book like I was, it is a bit disappointing.

 

At the end, he tries to summarize why fleadom may engender selfishness and apathy towards the rest of the society. In all, this does not feel like a corporate book – our instincts at the beginning are right. True, there are some interesting facts. But they are few and far between. You get to look at the life Charles led and what is important to him from his point of view. Is it interesting? Yes. He is a really nice, charming, caring person and it comes through clearly. But it is not a corporate or business book, though the title makes you think it is. It does not, for instance, tell you as a flea, how to influence the elephant where you are currently working. From that point of view, it is a mis-sell.

 

Also his belief that the modern world with its selfishness will lead to destruction is not borne out when you see the natural philanthropy occurring even today.

 

But the book in itself is interesting. I will say 6/10

–  –  Krishna

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May 19, 2018

Book: Sun in A Bottle by Charles Seife

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:26 pm

imageSometimes, you just have to read a couple of pages in some books to know that this is one that you will enjoy. This seems to be such a book. This is about the quest of humankind to harness fusion as the solution for world’s energy needs. Starts from the gruesome scene of the result of fission, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Also, the subtitle of the book explains the context better. “The Strange History of Fusion and The Science of Wishful Thinking”.

He gives a great layman’s account of what happens inside an atom bomb when the chain reaction starts and why such destructive power is unleashed, without the least bit resorting to any technical mumbo jumbo, the author provides interesting tidbits about how Enrico Fermi was the one who first showed how to control a nuclear reaction so that it does not become runaway (as in a bomb) but harnessed for power (as in a reactor).

 

Lovely portraits of the scientists themselves, reminding one of the style of that brilliant book from Bill Bryson, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. Consider this. Oppenheimer was the most unlikely person you would pick to head the Manhattan project which was in charge of perfecting the atom bomb for the US during the forties.  He mastered more than half a dozen languages including Sanskrit. But had difficulty even soldering copper wires. He considered himself a failure in Cambridge and contemplated suicide. He became even more erratic and tried to strangle a colleague. And claimed he placed a poisoned apple on the desk of a fellow scientist. Imagine in the current world of Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin – would he now be given a chance to head perhaps the most important scientific project?

 

Still not convinced? Consider this. At the time of his appointment, Oppenheimer was a security risk.  His brother and sisters in law were members of the communist party.  In addition, his ex-girlfriend was also a member!

 

It is interesting to know also that Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi were both members of the team. Interesting stuff also about Edward Teller, the sinister scientist with an obsession on fusion and who was going his own way in the project.  Amazingly, Truman is forced to take the side of fission  bomb when it turns out that a senior scientist of the project was exposed as a Russian spy and has been handing the fusion research secrets to the Russians all along.

 

The latter humiliation of Oppenheimer by a vicious vindictive Teller is well told.

 

Fabulous backstory about how the scientific community figured out electrons, protons, and neutrons. Even radioactivity is put into perspective better than I have seen done anywhere. Great stuff to read. The chilling plans to build canals and change the shape of the earth is told well. How many of us were unaware of these plans!

 

To think that Lake Chagan in Russia was actually created by a fusion bomb is astonishing. The tests that America and Russia did, and especially the hoax which took in Juan Peron to spend tens of millions of dollars on a fusion engine by a fake scientist, all are brilliantly told.  It can be a bit too technically oriented (despite being explained in simple terms brilliantly by the author) for people looking for stories but it definitely is fascinating to read.

 

First he takes on the cold fusion fiasco bordering on fraud by two famous scientists, both with glorious pasts, and their ultimate humiliation and exile to the fringes of the scientific research and he explains it very well.

 

Again I must reiterate : I have never seen anyone explain complex concepts so well. He explains how lasers are generated. Fascinating. It is by hitting molecules with light particles in a particular way with a particular colour of light. And he describes how when another molecule of light simply passes by, the light emitted by the atom that is hit “marches in lockstep with it”

 

The fiasco of the Cold Fusion hype is well told. I knew what cold fusion even was only by reading this book. Nice. But the detailed description of failure after failure can seem a bit long and a bit of a narrow focus for some readers.  But his description of  Talayerkhan’s blind pursuit in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence and his final literary evisceration by the scientific community make fascinating reading. Then comes the fiasco of bubble fusion, where scientists seem to border on deceit or at least self deception to claim results that are not from quality experiments and sometimes bordering on fraud.

 

The next piece about the fusion research and the hidden agenda of the countries is well told.

 

The ending? Meh. A lot of proselytizing and some repetition of the older ideas. Could have been better. His explanation of complex concepts is awe inspiringly masterly. Just for that, this book should be read by anyone interested in fusion or fission.

 

In my final rating, the rate is a bit low only because of the subpar ending.

 

7/10

– – Krishna

April 9, 2018

Book: Soft Selling In a Hard World by Jerry Vass

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:46 pm

imageA combination of training, and self help nonfiction work. It describes how you get to maximise your potential as a salesman, whether you are holding that formal title or not in an organization. I would consider that it is a mixed bag on the whole.

 

Interesting stuff where he defines the importance of sales and how you can sell your way to the top. It is not only salespeople who sell. Everyone who is successful and rises to the top in any profession is a salesperson.

 

He seems to think that everyone hates and disparages salesmen, which is puzzling. Yes, snake oil sellers and used car salesmen are universally despised, but others? It is an interesting book but you do not learn any great new concepts but most of what he talks about is common sense.

 

The Proof Statement? That is what I thought all salespeople did. Apparently not.

 

There are interesting tips about flanking questions that get beyond the Buyer’s Armour (and a grotesque description and picture of the buyer’s nether parts which are exposed and naked that your question can get at) and get him to both think and get him to your side.

 

The steps are interesting, but I don’t know if, as he claims, it can work in a cold call and even (as he seems to imply) with a hostile customer.

 

Nice points about being confident and always having the goal in mind. Nice points about not to use hard sell or oversell. But he says ‘never use the jargon’ which seems a bit excessive.

 

However, the techniques undeniable make sense and will sharpen the toolkit of any salesman, whether it has the near magical effect that Vass claims for them or not. A useful toolkit to have if you are selling anything.

 

The one thing that makes an even greater impact is what he says at the beginning of the book. Salesmen are not merely those whose profession is sales. Everyone is a salesman at work. In fact, very successful salespeople are executives and all executives are there because they sold themselves successfully in their career. Nice.

Nice tips. The author is convinced that this will make all the difference between success and failure. I like his confidence but do not share his conviction. What is undeniably true is that it sharpens your arsenal when you go out there to make a cold call.

 

In summary,  the author does a reasonable but not spectacular job of selling his ideas in the book to you.

 

6 / 10

– – Krishna

March 10, 2018

Book: Uncertainty by David Lindley

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:46 pm

imageThe full title, to give it its due is : ‘ Uncertainty : Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and The Struggle for the Soul of Science‘.

Lovely at the start, really. A book about the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that opened the way for the weirdness of Quantum Theory.

Did you know that Heisenberg was only twenty years old when he wrote a thesis on that principle? Who was his teacher? Niels Bohr himself!

Very well told tale, again at the beginning. It is fascinating to learn how Einstein was disdainful at first and then became a reluctant convert, even then arguing that it is only a partial solution and a more elegant answer is waiting to be found. He was unwilling to commit himself to it fully.

The narration is brilliant and captures the passion for the subject matter the author feels. The argument that Brown (of the Brownian Motion fame) initially found perplexing movements in items like the pollen and even the leaves, ‘thereby kind of starting observations that culminated in quantum mechanics many years hence’ is fascinating and, to me at least, novel.

A lovely argument about how Einstein came up with the mathematical model for Brownian motion and how it moved science from a precise, measurable branch of knowledge into the realm of equations and verifications of impacts – much to the chagrin of positivists, who kept insisting that atoms are not real as they cannot be seen or measured directly.

The story now branches into the equally interesting history of the discovery of X-Rays (Rontgen) and radioactivity (with the addition of both Plutonium and Radium to the newly created periodic table) where most of the work was done by the Curie couple. How radioactivity overturned the principle of cause and effect hitherto considered sacrosanct in science (“The rock just sits there and emits energy out of nothing?”) is well told.

So is the discovery of electrons that led to the amazing realization that atom is not the smallest particle known.  The rays coming out of the vacuum tubes were “tiny electrically charged particles smaller than anything known before – and therefore named electrons. What is equally fun to read is the personal profiles of the personalities involved.

Especially Niels Bohr. With his bushy eyebrows and a thick jaw and a mouth drooping downwards, the big gangly man, when deep in thought, stood slack and looked, in the words of a fellow scientist “like an idiot”.

The idea of a nucleus of an atom is deduced by shooting electrons *the newly discovered particles with mass” through a gold foil. Most electrons sail right through as if the foil is not even there but inexplicably, a very few electrons bounce back. What is stopping them? Exhilarating definitions of how the atom’s structure was put together piece by piece.

When Bohr stumbles on the math involved, the German scientist Sommerfield takes over and the nucleus of research in this field shifts to Germany (prior to WW II).

There is also the interesting description of Planck supporting the German side during WW I and even supporting the Nazis so far as to deny any cruelty was being perpetrated by German army. At the end of the War he is left looking stupid and rapidly backpedalling.

Einstein’s iconoclastic views all through his life is also well described. The adamant and nonsensical obstinacy of Bohr to accept that light could be a particle, even in the face of mounting evidence is surprising to read.

The book  has a lot of detailed descriptions about the debate between classical and quantum theory camps. The only interesting thing towards the end is how adamantly Einstein was opposed to the uncertainty principle, even after repeatedly being proved wrong.

And the fact that the famous Schrodinger’s cat example was devised to prove how ridiculous quantum theory is – that is, to disprove it. You will like  the explanation of the author as to why that example is wrong.

Nice book but towards the end gets very verbose and draggy. An interesting read but not an exciting one. Could have been elevated to the level of truly great science books with a little adept cutting and pruning.

6/10

–  –  Krishna

February 17, 2018

Book: A Lucky Child by Thomas Bluergenthal

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:09 pm

imageThis is a very different book.

 

It describes the experience of a small boy who survived a holocaust concentration camp. He was born in Czechoslovakia, in what is currently Slovakia.

 

He talks about his father’s birth in Poland and successive moves to Germany and then Czechoslovakia. It is well told, with his mother saving them from being collected in Czech territory when the father is away and they being shuttled between Czech and Poland borders many times. They manage to get into Poland but still are not out of danger.

 

They are heart-achingly close to escape with UK almost granting them a visa and they go to Poland, and then try Russia, give up, and try to cross Poland with no success. His childhood torments in the hands of other, orthodox jews and his belief in the supernatural elements of the religion come out well, providing a different strand from the grimness of the main tale. Initially.

 

It had a vague Anne Frank kind of vibe, not just because both are experiences of the Holocaust but also because there are the daily living trivia amidst menacing background and how a boy (as against a girl in the other one) copes with the odds and where they find the strength needed to move on and endure. But as you read on, you realize this is a very different narration. The author, since he reminisces many years as an adult, is aware of what is going on in grim detail while Anne Frank wrote her diary as an ordinary girl in hiding, without (apparently) a full realization of her precarious situation.

 

This one tells the story straight from memory and feels like the life of a real boy in a concentration camp. The details are fascinating. For instance, how he slipped away every time after the roll call and before the ‘selection’ of prisoners to the gas chamber, how he got separated from his mother immediately and his father after a few months, how his father protected him by getting him gainful employment from friends who were barrack bosses. Also how friends in his city turned squealers when he and his family tried to slip away one day to freedom. All amazingly and simply told. It has a feel of sitting in front of him and listening to him reminisce about the old days. Nice.

 

The brief glimpse of his mother and the forced march where if you could walk no more, you were shot, are all told simply but with devastating effect.

 

His memories at the orphanage and comparative “luxury” are well told, as are his minor mischieves in getting a discounted ticket and blowing the money given on candy etc.

 

He gets a note from his mother through the orphanage and is thrilled. After he is reunited with his mom, the story reads like an ordinary boy’s but there are flashes of his extraordinary life and how he became famous in Norway due to the write-up of Nansen, a Norwegian Red Cross person who had helped him in the camp and wrote about him when he returned to Norway.

 

The book could have ended earlier, when he was reunited with his mother after his travails but it would have been even shorter, so I guess the story needed to be elongated beyond the subject matter that is core subject matter intended. .This takes away from the book only because it tackled such a serious subject with verve only to meander a little bit at the end.

 

7/ 10

 

— Krishna

Book: The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:59 pm

imageStarted nicely, comparing Chris Columbus aims to find India by sea and what the modern equivalent of business travel to India is like.

 

The book is good in many respects but there are a ton of annoying parts, over generalizations and blithe preachy tone that puts off a reader. This is unfortunate because there is a lot in the book that is both good to know and is fascinating to read.

 

Then he goes into a eulogistic rhapsody about “these dynamic young Indians” and quoting Indian tech executives verbatim. When the plot meanders into mundane territory about how the call centre employees are unfailingly patient, and have the western names and accents to ‘give comfort to the clients’ it gets fairly boring. Especially now that the call centres are moving to Philippines from India with greater success. No, I am not knocking India, but only the eulogistic portrayal of what India has achieved, with what seems to be little balanced analysis.

 

There is a long list of how Indian young things handle calls and even more condescending blather about how the call centre jobs, which are the lowest paid in the West are sought after and fought after in India.

 

It gets even more annoying with generalizations. The city of Dajian has plans to outdo India as a software outsourcing centre. Even though the Chinese “are not as good in English as the Indians”, they plan to “select the best Chinese” to outcompete “because there are more Chinese than Indians by population”. Can you believe the string of generalizatons in this?

 

The story sometimes wanders into areas where you struggle to see how this is world going flat. They talk about a person conducting interviews with a MP3 player that doubles as a recorder and his phone camera and publishing it in a blog. Well, so what is the lesson there? The concept of freelancing is not new, despite the gadgets on display, is it?

 

Except for the annoying trivia, the message is interesting. The connection between the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the Iron Curtain) and the globalization of the world is very persuasively argued.

 

There is a whole lot of explanation about what is a web server, and how a browser works that are simply redundant for those techies (like me) who read the book. It may not even interest a lay reader.

 

He talks about colloboration through Wikis, the Open Source movement, and, though it is old hat for people in IT who watched it all happen, maybe new for lay persons interested, but at times he seems to get a bit more technical than what they can take. But apart from a few slips, this is an admirable attempt to de-jargonize the concepts for everyone.

 

A mixture of trivia and complicated descriptions is the one fault I can find. But generally the narration is just right and everyone, whether versed in technology or not,  gets the sense of the major upheavals that produced a ‘flat world’ as the author calls it.

 

He talks of the rise of India and the fortuitous coincidences that helped it along the way.

Some of it is a stretch like “in-forming” etc, but in general, he makes good points. The piece about how UPS manages even their customer’s businesses for them is interesting (repairing laptops for HP and managing logistics for Ford etc.)

 

But there are lots of repetitions and the same idea is presented multiple ways and sometimes the same idea the same way. It is as if you skipped back and reading an earlier chapter again, which was very frustrating. The argument about cheap and profitable aka WalMart but expensive (and more humane) and less profitable like Costco is repeated at least in the same detail in two different places that you feel like saying to the author ‘Oh, so sad. Do you have a short term memory loss? You just told me this a few pages ago!’.

 

The argument he makes for why free trade and globalization are good forces for all countries, even the ones who are outsourcing, is an old one, but he makes it with compelling arguments. (And to be fair, the book is old too. It talks of Palm Pilots and smartphones in the same breath).

 

That the argument is old and familiar does not take away the interest in reading it, because it is a very persuasive argument about the globalization and how US is not living up to it. I do not agree that progress in India and China counts as innovation yet, and his lament that these emerging nations are stealing tomorrow’s leadership from US In innovation, but his argument about how US is not focusing on the right things to protect its leadership and prosperity seems spot on.

 

The slight snobbery bothers me as a reader. He talks of US having to go to “broken down piece of the Soviet Union, Russia, where the only thing that works is science and engineering education” – wait for this – “though we won the Cold War”.  Wait, what did he just say?

 

Many of the arguments are valid and well made but it is interesting that a liberal leaning, conservative-ideology-hating author comes out with solutions for the current flat world (aka globalized world where the competition is across national boundaries) and comes out with prescriptions that are sure to infuriate the unions – portable skills, easy layoff and hiring etc.

 

And sweeping generalization is another problem. Leave aside blanket statements like “North Korea is 200 km away” (yeah? the entire country?)  he also says blithe things like “A handful of leaders in countries like China, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and India…. relied on the leverage of authoritarian political systems to push through reforms”. Really? India? Authoritarian?  A high school geography text book could have told him otherwise. A pity, since the fundamental points he makes are sound, even if already well known.

 

Don’t get me wrong, not everything he says, even about India is wrong. He is on the dot about the awful infrastructure and abominable power situation that is holding the country back.

 

Again, coming to India, he lauds Indian Congress party for choosing Manmohan Singh, the reformer, as Prime Minister “because they realized that Indians were craving the benefits of prosperity to be distributed evenly to rural areas as well”. This is as widely off the mark as can be. The internal politics of how Sonia Gandhi could not herself become Prime Minister due to her origin of birth (and crazy objections from others resulting from that very fact) and his subsequent powerlessness to impose any reform and his ignominious exit due to scandals that he could not control and even came close to tainting him are all events that follow the publication of this book but nevertheless prove how wrong this argument is.

 

And I for one do not fully buy the argument that rural, illiterate Indians voted out the ruling party in 2004 despite its liberalization success “because they wanted to be involved in the prosperity engendered by globalization”. Yes, there was some of that. But the argument ignores the entire complex machinations by people misled by politicians and also voting on the basis of anger against fat cat capitalists, and all pervasive corruption or voting on narrow caste interests.

 

What is also hard to accept is his argument that the Arabs are resorting to suicide bombing violence primarily due to frustrations against their authoritarian governments.

 

But his arguments on the anti globalization movement, its motivation and origins and its effect of undermining the prosperity of the very poor that they seem to champion are all exactly right and also narrated brilliantly.

 

The book ends thought provokingly and in my view the last few chapters are the most interesting.

 

5/10

— Krishna

February 10, 2018

Book: This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:17 pm

imageThis is one of the books that are off the beaten track and make you both think and (due to parts of it) be bored.

 

This is a collection of thought provoking articles culled from the Edge  which is a British magazine that seems like the printed version of scientific op-ed pieces.

 

It is also a Creationist’s or even a deeply religious person’s nightmare.  The first essay is about time that still remains in the universe as opposed to the limited time (“limited” is relative, as in 13.6 billion years) the universe has been in place.These are very short essays, and some are thought provoking as in “Everything you hold dear is a cosmic accident. There is no specific purpose in your existence; earth is not the centre of the Universe; the sun is a smallish, insignificant star in the scheme of things” etc. Well, most of it you knew already before picking up this book, but this gives another perspective to look at these.

 

Another article is about the microbes ruling the world. Makes you think. There are articles about instilling scientific thinking as a general principle of the public awareness and how it would change the world for the better. For instance, there is a piece about controlled experimentation in everyday life, not just in scientific labs.

 

The article about innate bias in everything including the supposedly neutral agencies like the media (really? The author thought they are supposed to be neutral?) is very interesting.

 

An article talks of why the term “scientifically proven” is an oxymoron. Fascinating to read why and then you finally tend to agree with the argument! A similar argument about how uncertainty is the real fact of life is interesting.

 

Again, you are struck by the rationalist tone. If there was a group against a decisive and omnipotent God and not just Creationism, this is it.

 

The piece about how people underestimate risk and overestimate their ability is nice.

 

It is not possible to review the pieces individually but most are thought provoking and almost all of them make you think – justifying the title. If you are of the anti Darwin persuasion, these will probably also uniformly make you seethe with anger.

 

There are interesting essays about the powers of ten, and others, such as the one about memes or about cumulative error, are boring.

 

Some are plain silly, a couple are difficult to understand, but they all make you pause and think ‘Hm, I never thought of it in this way’ most of the time.

 

There is one in particular about SHA (Short hand Abstraction) that borders on the bizarre.

 

A mixed bag, worth, on an average, 4/10

– – Krishna

January 6, 2018

Book: Right From the Start by Dan Ciampa & Michael Watkins

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 6:33 pm

Note: This book is reviewed from the point of usefulness of the subject matter. It is a non fictional managerial aid book, and is reviewed as such.

Taking over as second in command under a departing CEO

image

 from an external company is hard. You battle with three issues : promises you made to the board to get the job, unfamiliarity of the new turf and antagonism from senior executives who hope you fail so they in turn can become CEO

The case studies to illustrate the points are excellent. For instance, Andy, who is brought in as Number Two to uplift a floundering company, goes gung ho and rough shod over everyone and gets fired for his pains on what looks like the third week. Others describe being hijacked by vested interests and people who try to push their own, sometimes tired, agenda onto the new boss.

They outline multiple principles – the need to focus on specific goals, show early wins and build momentum while not losing focus on where we go, the need to learn and adjust the plan based on the company’s capabilities and unique circumstances, to effect change at the top to build a team both by inspiring and replacing executives. None of these is surprising but it is well told.

Example of Matt who did not keep his subordinates behind him while he curried favours with the superiors, example of how people successfully listened and modified their initial vision to account for the company’s limitations are all very useful and nicely narrated.

The examples in all the steps (Personal Vision, Early successes, and how to influence the department, how to build a support network) are very useful and give this book a less pedantic and more practical feel.

The principles to follow – making change only to the extent that the organization can take, listening in, making people changes positively but quickly, being accessible but not too accessible – are interesting to read.

The authors talk about creating a personal vision, and how to formulate the vision – all to the point and very interesting. The formation of the vision, whether to share it widely and whether to share it with the CEO (whose work you are essentially dismantling in a way) are well told. Again, examples bring home the point more forcefully than a dozen pages of dry discourse and also keeps this interesting to read.

There are chapters devoted to self management, and an especially interesting one about seeking counsel. They talk about the various types of counsels you need and how to get them. They also talk about how someone else’s ideal counsellors will not be the right one for you.

Nice book and gives you insight about an unusual subject well. Not gripping, not told in a racy style (which it is possible to do even in this topic) but good arguments made in a serious tone. If you are not interested in this topic, though, you may find the material boring and may want to skip it.

7/ 10

– – Krishna

November 5, 2017

Book: Are you Smart Enough To Work At Google? by William Poundstone

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:50 pm

imageWhat a title! Full marks for the title that wants you to read the book at once. Unfortunately, the book itself does not live up to that hype. It would have been far better if it was the other way around – a great book with an insipid title.

 

Started with a weird interview of a candidate with Google. Then he goes into types of interview questions that are cliche and some which are oddball.

 

If you love puzzles, you would love this book. For instance, one of the questions is “What is the next number in the series 10 9 60 90 70 66?”. Try as I might, I could not guess the answer. Perhaps you can but the answer is very surprising!

 

Another question is : If you were shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in a blender and the blender is about to start in 10 minutes, how will you escape? The “right” answer and the science behind it are interesting indeed. As is the discussion on what to take seriously in the question (as a given, without questioning it) and what to infer!

 

The analysis of why the scene of the Incredible Shrinking Man fighting with a spider using a needle has been picturized wrong is nice indeed. (It is related to the above is the only clue I am willing to give, so as not to spoil the book for you).

 

He talks about how interviews are useless predictors of future performance. The idea that not all intelligent people are successful or creative etc. Questions on creativity “Give me all the uses you can put a brick into” are interesting.

 

He talks about a world where paucity of jobs makes the employers choosy due to applications overflowing for each job and even Walmart asks tricky questions to test your thinking prowess.

 

But the book is not about questions that make you think. I thought it would be a puzzle book, cleverly titled to draw in readership but it is actually more an analysis of the hiring practices in most companies, especially Google. Does not consistently retain your interest.

 

Some puzzles are brilliant. The 100 prisoners who wear red or blue hat and stand in a line so that everyone can see the hats in front of them but not theirs or the ones behind them. They are asked to name the colour of their own hat and will be shot dead if they get it wrong. There is a strategy that is foolproof that can help everyone (except the last one). The explanation is simply brilliant! Pieces like this save the book from being another uninteresting discussion on google’s hiring practice.

 

The puzzle about two men talking about a man’s three daughters (product of the ages is 72 and sum of their ages is “equal to the number on that house opposite” without giving you the number. The other says, “I still don’t understand” and the first one clarifies fully by saying “my eldest daughter plays the piano” and it is all clear to the second one!) is excellent as is the reasoning behind the answer.

 

Those are the best parts. There is an overwhelmingly tedious description on how everyone wants to work for the best tech companies and how you can prepare for the job.

 

But most of the book is about the quirky nature of questions in today’s interviews in the tech world and how you address them. Most of them are not logical but very esoteric and the answers are, frankly, not enough to hold your interest if you are not pining for an interview in one of these tech giants or if you are not interested in unrealistic problem solving. The book does not hold your interest for long, if you are a layman.

 

I will give it, at best, a 4 / 10

October 26, 2017

Book: A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:13 am

imageI hate overly preachy or overly fawning accounts in the name of non fiction. I mean books like Beyond the Last Blue Mountain or, perhaps surprisingly for you, The Life of Pi.  From the book’s title and the subject matter, I feared that this is perhaps one in the latter category. Thankfully, this is not the case.

 

The full title of this book is :  A Problem From Hell : America and the Age of Genocide. Sounds like a literature Ph D thesis and I would have not touched the book with a ten foot pole if it had not come with high recommendations. As it is, I am glad I did. It is a well written and gripping book and the author’s passion for the oppressed comes out as is her frustration and anger at successive US bungling of each crisis.

 

The book covers a broad canvas. Covers all mass killings, effortlessly moving from the Armenian genocide by Turkey to Pol Pot massacres to Nazi Germany and Iraq’s attempts at the eradication of their Kurd population.

 

An Armenian kills Kamal Pasha, who is living in retirement in Germany for all the atrocities the latter committed against Armenians when he was a Turkish general in the Ottoman army.

Tehrlian, the assassin, in his young days saw his whole family raped, tortured and killed by the Turkish soldiers who were accompanying them in a forced march “in order to protect them”. He himself was left for dead after a hit on his head knocked him unconscious.

 

The massacre is not condemned by Germany, which is an ally of Turkey against the Allies in World War I but the Allies themselves are too busy to win the war to make a big protest.

 

The valiant efforts of Morgenthau, the US ambassador to get US to intervene is of no avail. He asks for a transfer in disgust and is never appointed again as an ambassador by an irate President Wilson.

 

Samantha writes passionately and very well, keeping what is a rather difficult subject well.

 

Another advocate for stopping extermination of a whole ethnicity (the term ‘genocide’ was not used then) was a Polish lawyer called Lemkin. He tried to propose, in UN, that this should be made illegal, and even specifically talked about dangers such as the (future) rise of a ruler like Hitler in Germany. The motion was defeated and the UN panel said that there was no conceivable way anything like the Armenian massacre “can happen again”. Remember that Lemkin was a Polish Jew and that the year was 1939 and the irony is supreme!

 

Lemkin tries to persuade the Jews to leave as soon as Germany invades Poland but no one, not even his family, wants to leave the place where they have ‘everything’. Tragic. He immigrates to the US and his efforts to bring the plight of Jews under Hitler also fall on deaf ears. He coins the word genocide to denote attempts to exterminate a whole people.

 

Zygielbojm was so frustrated with the lack of attention to the Jewish plight and the indecision of the Allied powers that he killed himself to bring their plight to the world’s attention.

 

Lemkin makes himself a pest making people run the other way when they see him but succeeds in getting genocide outlawed by a UN charter. US turns against the vague wording of the act and refuses to ratify it. Lemkin goes nearly nuts and complains against Human Rights Act of UN! He dies a weird man to the last.

 

Proxmire takes up the cudgels for genocide law afterwards.

 

The author complains that during Khmer Rouge atrocities US did not step in and do something. I agree that a nation’s rulers should not be allowed to murder their own population or part thereof with impunity but think about it. US was just walloped in Vietnam and evacuated Combodia and were war weary. To go back in again against Khmer Rouge would not have been easy as they needed Congress approval to do that and the whole country was up against foreign adventurism due to the Vietnam war effect. Rather like the post Iraq fatigue of US in Syria, for example. The debate then (as it is now in the Middle East) is whether the suffering of a citizenry justifies a foreign power to intervene against the government’s will.

 

Excellent coverage is provided of the reasons of the Pol Pot takeover of Cambodia, including the corrupt administration of Prince Sihanouk, the womanizing gourmet who called himself god king or ‘deva raj’ (Interesting use of Sanskrit there, of all things).

 

Nixon administrations to install the totally ineffective regime of Lon Nol as the prime minister, in a coup and the author describes how it exacerbated the problem and how his army was not even furnished and how US gave 80% of the revenues in aid which went straight to the pockets of the ruling politicians. Fascinating. It is ironic how Sihanouk became the front for the Pol Pot regime when they won the civil war. The subsequent brutality was covered much more graphically in the other book we reviewed earlier – Pol Pot: A History of Nightmare by Philip Short which gave the inside view. But this one is a good outsider’s summary.

 

The Cambodian story from the perspective of US and world inaction in the face of mass atrocities by Pol Pot regime is also beautifully told. The struggles of lone Senators to get the Carter administration or the UN to do something substantial without much to show for it is also heart rending.

 

Due to cold war considerations, it is appalling to see US side with the ousted Khmer Rouge government even after the genocide is well known and not only get them a seat in the UN but also supply arms for it to recapture Cambodia from Vietnam? All because Vietnam was aligned with Russia and US was trying to curry favour with China, a Khmer supporter? It is terrible to read!

 

What a powerful indictment on the US policy! First, unreasonable reluctance to even acknowledge Hitler’s mass executions, then support for Cambodian regime (even aid and arms after they were ousted) to unseat Vietnam which had finally “liberated” the place, then overt support and blind denials of Saddam’s employment of chemical weapons against his own population of Kurds. When you read the stubborn refusal of US government to recognize overwhelming evidence from its own senators and journalists for the sake of geopolitics, you are truly horrified.

 

Samantha then turns her razor sharp analysis to the Bosnian problem. Clinton the Presidential Candidate is full of passion and outrage for the Bosnians but Clinton the President turns out to be a totally different one, not taking any action at all while Bosnians are massacred with seeming impunity by the Miloslavic regime. Ironic that an author vilified as a war monger ended up in the advisory council of one of the tamest Presidents of them all, Obama.

 

Rwandan massacres come in next and her explanation of the riot in personal terms of what individual groups did makes, again, for a powerful description of the madness that prevailed. The chilling “instructions” given to Hutus is terribly stark.

 

Samantha covers the Bosnian and Kosovo crises too, in a similar vein.

 

The last portion of the book is a rehash mostly. There are some moving vignettes. This focuses on the remedial measures taken and compares the Human Rights commissions set up in various countries (Cambodia, Rwanda with the International Court of Justice). You can safely skip most of this without any loss of information.

 

In all, a great book, better than I anticipated.  7/10

 

–  –  Krishna

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