Monday, November 28, 2016

[Book] The Productivity Project: Chris Bailey

It's ironic that a book about productivity should turn out to be a colossal waste of our time. The author claims to have spent one YEAR trying out and refining the productivity tips and techniques, but I am sorry to report that he shouldn't have bothered. 

The few worthwhile pointers the book contains are either covered in other books in much better detail (Getting Things Done by David Allen, for example) or are really common sense (meditate, don't procrastinate, etc.) 
Many of the ideas are downright detrimental. To discuss a few...

  • The author suggests to turn off the phone during sleeping hours.
    Really? What if our parents need to call us? Or a friend needs urgent help in the middle of the night?
  • The author recommends 'forcing' ourselves to check email just thrice a day.
    Oh, poor you! If email is so bothersome, you should actually reconsider whether to work in a place that uses email.
  • The author suggests declining any meetings that go beyond our 'predefined weekly meeting quota' (say, 4 hours).
    Seriously? Try telling your boss that you can't attend a meeting, or try telling a client that you won't participate in an escalation discussion because "it's beyond my weekly meeting quota".

There's no denying the point that emails, smartphones, meetings can be distracting and a time-hog, but if a 'productivity technique' relies upon just ignoring them or shutting them off, it needs to be scrutinized closely. 

  • I could go on, but here's just one more:
    The author suggests having an assistant, someone who can be paid $15-30 per hour -- or even more, if h/she is good enough. Dude, that turns out to be about two thousand rupees per hour!

And there are contradictions galore… At the beginning, the author suggests allocating less time for important tasks (yeah, you read it right), so that we would 'focus more on them'. But what about the associated stress? And what about "single tasking for extended duration' that you preach later on? And what to do with the spare time 'saved' by not working on the tasks that matter? 

Usually, I don't post negative reviews. But it is books like this that taint the productivity genre as a whole.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

[Book] Dark Sun - Richard Rhodes

You know that a book is going to keep you busy reading for a while when the page count is 750, excluding the 40 pages with photographs. You know that the book is likely to be well-researched when the list of books referenced (bibliography) runs 35 pages and footnotes for chapters take up 110 pages. You know that the author has done a splendid job with writing when, after finishing an 850-page book you are desperate enough to immediately order another 800-page beast of a book by him. 

"Dark Sun" is that book, and Richard Rhodes is the author. His "Making of Atomic Bomb" chronicled the invention of nuclear weapons; in the "Dark Sun" he takes us further, to the dawn of thermonuclear... The hydrogen bomb. It's a script apt for a movie thriller, full of espionage, betrayal, works of genius, and torture. It tells the story of spies like Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, the brilliance of physicists like Ulam and Kurchatov, the belligerence of military leaders like LeMay and Beria. 

The sinister shadow of mushroom cloud looms large across each page, and it doesn't even have a silver lining... Instead, it ends in the heartbreaking tragedy of espionage trial of a giant of science like Robert Oppenheimer by paranoid bureaucrats and jealous colleagues. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

[Book] Faces - Gautam Rajadhyaksha

As a teenager, whenever I browsed through film magazines, there was a class of photos that stood out distinctively. The photos, mostly -- but not always -- in black & white, had their subject glowing in a soft focus, seemingly at peace with themselves and the world. They were shot at such a close range that threatened to expose every pimple and every mole, but instead made them look even more serene. And, no matter which magazine, one thing was common: The tagline that said "Photograph by: Gautam Rajadhyaksha"

Some of us friends had a rare chance to get a glimpse of the maestro himself during a photo exhibition titled "Faces" in Goa, the year was 2000. Fast forward a decade, and many of those photos had made it into a coffee table book with the same name. (Marathi edition is similarly titled "चेहरे"). For five years I tried to get the book but in vain. Apparently, only a limited copies were printed and most of them for private circulation only.

At last this year, I found it with a vendor at National Book Exhibition, but only after fighting tooth and nail with another customer. I felt sorry for him, but I deserved this one... After all, I have waited 15 years.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

[Book] Algorithms to live by: The Computer Science of human decisions

Do you like algorithms? And, like me, do you often get confused and frustrated with how to deal with humans in a rational, logical way? And.. Do you often wish there were computer algorithms to deal with human behaviour and interactions? 

If your answer to these questions is No, then don't read this book.

"Algorithms to live by: The computer science of human decisions" attempts to reduce complex, often chaotic human actions and decision-making processes to a set of well-defined mathematical rules. 
For example, how many houses you should look at before deciding which one to buy? (Short answer: 37%). Or which is the best way to sort your books? Or to schedule interviews of candidates so that you get the best person in shortest time? Or how to use the concept of caching to organize your papers in an optimum manner?

The book is full of such examples of how to use the mathematical theories that are commonly used in computer algorithms, into our day to day lives. The authors, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, have taken care not to faze and daze the reader with too much jargon, which makes this book an easy read. 

The only complaint I have about this one is: Even after reading 370 pages, I wanted more of it. That, perhaps, is less of a complaint and more of an acknowledgement of how good this book is. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Books on Project Apollo

My fascination with the Project Apollo Moon landing missions started in 1992 when my father handed me a book titled The Story of Apollo 11. Over the last 20+ years, I have read every book, every NASA publication and every astronaut biography I could get; and yet, two of the best books I read were just last two weeks. 

"Apollo: The Race to the Moon" by Catherin Cox / Charles Murray and "A Man on the Moon: Voyages of Apollo" by Andrew Chaikin are two most comprehensive, detailed accounts of what is widely considered one of the most notable achievements of human race. 

The two books, each running 500+ pages cover the same subject, but from two different perspectives. Chaikin interviewed all the astronauts, and he focuses on their careers, their selection into NASA, the fierce competition among them, rigorous training and details each Moon mission in detail. Cox and Murray provide a detailed account of the NASA technology management for Apollo program, development of Saturn V, Apollo spacecraft and the art & science of mission control. 

There is practically no overlap between the two books, and each one stands as a must-read book on its own.