What I read in 2017 – Part 2 (Fiction)

I read a lot of fiction. Mostly crime-fiction, it is my guilty pleasure and companion on all my flights. Choosing what to read has been a very random decision. Sometimes I pick a book because I wanted to explore a new author or explore crime-fiction from a different country, language or theme.. And sometimes just because I synced my kindle with random books in my collection. Amidst all the crime-fiction I did read a couple of literary fiction, although I must confess that I had planned to read a lot more of literary fiction last year. If I look back at the books that I read last year, I explored several new authors and new series (from new or established authors) . So here goes the list of fiction that I read in 2017.

  • Poisonfeather by Matthew FitzSimmons– The second book in the Gibson Vaughn series. Gibson Vaughn is turning out to be an interesting new character. After reading The Short Drop, which got some good reviews on Amazon last year, I somewhat liked this character. Humane, emotional, troubled and super-hacker.
  • Cold Harbor by Matthew FitzSimmons – As mentioned above, I went ahead with the 3rd installment of the Vaughn series. A bit disappointed by the plot and the treatment but Vaughn did not let me drop this book unfinished.
  • Iron House by John Hart – There are very few popular crime-fiction writers who can write well. John Hart can blur the line between crime-fiction and literary fiction. If you have not read John Hart, you must explore his work. He is also the only author to have won two Edger Awards for his consecutive books.
  • Redemption Road by John Hart– The latest from John Hart and again he did not disappoint.
  • The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz– I discovered Gregg Hurwitz last year with Orphan X. Orphan X, the title character is a likable amalgamation of Jason Bourne, Mich Rapp, Will Robbie. Gregg Hurwitz surprised me with Orphan X (in fact impressed quite a few including Warner Brother who bought the rights for a movie series) and made me look forward to the new installment of this series. Fast paced, suspenseful and high-octane thrill ride.
  • IQ by Joe IDE-Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) is another character inspired by Sherlock Holmes, but in a very different setting and with a very different treatment. IQ, an orphan, exploring the accident that killed his brother, is lovable, street-smart and super-intelligent. The plot set in LA is quite engaging and realistic.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty– This satire by Paul Beatty, is one of the most talked about books of 2016 and winner of Man Booker Prize 2016. Highly enjoyable, unlike some of the other award winning books who disappoint on this front.
  • Chitralekha by Bhagvaticharan Varma– This philosophical novel deals with sin, virtue, desire and passion and how circumstances enslave people. Recommended for anyone interested in reading good Hindi literature.
  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee– Nothing much to add about this book. Masterpiece. One of the best books of last 50 years.
  • The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz– Last year I read Dean Koontz for the first time and immediately I knew why he is rated as one of the best authors of suspense thriller genre. When I read the blurb of this book, it was an automatic choice: a new character (Jane Hawk), elements of sci-fi, and the usual Dean Koontz style of storytelling.
  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz -A very intelligent whodunit that reminds us of Agatha Christie. A book within a book, a murder mystery within a murder mystery.. And a clever twist in the end.
  • The Trespasser by Tana French– Did not find anything great to talk about. Mediocre police procedural.
  • The Dry by Jane Harper– One of the better crime novels to hit the stand last year. It deservingly received rave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
  • Natchez Burning by Greg Iles: The first in the Natchez Burning trilogy. The expansive story that goes beyond the crime fiction genre to portray the racial hatred in this atmospheric thriller.
  • The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne -Another random pick based, which turned out to be a good read. A computational biologist turns investigators to prove his innocence in a murder case. Apart from him, the only other suspect is a wild bear; and our biologist discovers that the wild bear is innocent/being framed.
  • The Fix by David Baldacci – Another installment of Amos Decker.
  • Night School by Lee Child – Passable.
  • The Guilty by David Baldacci – Will Robbie series. Engaging.
  • 1st To Die by James Patterson – One of the earlier books of James Patterson. And it tells you why he became so successful.
  • The Girl Who Takes An Eye for An Eye by David Lagercrantz – Lisbeth Salander compelled me to read this as soon as it was out.
  • House of Spies by Daniel Silva – Daniel Silva gives a glimpse of international terror network in the latest book of Gabriel Allon series. Typical Daniel Silva stuff but nothing great.
  • Origin by Dan Brown– The latest from Dan Brown and it was a bit disappointing.

What I read in 2017- 1 (Non-fiction)

Thanks to my sleeping disorder and the age-old habit of going to bed with a book or kindle, I did manage to finish 30 books this year. There are several books that I left midway or just finished a few chapters and dropped them (or put them on to-be-finished-later list). While crime-fiction remains my guilty pleasures and preferred genre for light reading/in the flight reading, this year, I ended up reading some thought-provoking non-fiction and literary fiction. Although, I feel bad that I could not read some of the most talked about books this year. Lincoln in the Bardo, The gene, When Breath Becomes Air.. although these are the books still on my reading list and I hope to finish them in 2018. So here is the list of books that I read in 2017(Non-fiction).

  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche – Undoubtedly one of the most impactful and thought-provoking book that I read this year. In fact, it was more than reading. Every page, every chapter that I read forced me to go through lengthy ruminations and introspection. I have already recommended this book to many people who want to explore Buddhism or are looking to find some meaning and solace in life. This profound book helps you live better, be a better human being by dissecting our final destination i.e. death. Many people pick this book in the fag end of their life when death starts staring at them, but this is the book one should read as early as possible to live a better life. Although the title has the word ‘dying’ in it but this is a book about living.
  • At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell – Almost 18 years back, I got to know Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus by serendipity. I found second hand copies of their works (Being and Nothingness and The Rebel) in old book shops in Patna. At that time I only knew these names because they appeared in some quotable quotes in some magazines or newspapers. Though I liked the Rebel but I could not manage to go beyond the first chapter of Being and Nothingness (It is rated one of the most difficult books to read) till recently. But both Camus and Sartre intrigued me and I went to read some of their popular works later. ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’ is an intimate and interesting narrative of leading figure of existentialist movement: Sarte, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Heidegger and others. As the author puts it “Their ideas were interesting but their personal lives are more interesting than their ideas”. After reading the book, one gets a very different perspective about the entire existentialist philosophy.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben – A fascinating read. My two-years at IIFM introduced me to many things about trees and forest by forcing us to read those horribly written sleep-inducing technical text books. Reading them was a compulsion. But this is the book which makes it so much fun to explore trees and their ecosystem. I strongly suggest that this should be the first book that a person who is interested in trees and forest should read.
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J Levitin – A very good resource for anyone who is looking to get cutting edge brain science behind how people organize their life and work.
  • Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky – The book reminds of our often misplaced faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market. He produces scathing attack on neoliberalism and points out the major flaws. Very good read to understand the limitations of market led development and how big corporates play the market.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Coates’s letter to his son shows us what does it mean to grow up as a black kid in today’s America. Coates writing is brilliant and his portrayal of black life in America raises many questions.
  • How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci – Last year, a friend talked very highly of The Antidote – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and I read it on his suggestion. This book got my interest piqued in stoicism. Pigliucci’s book popped in my book recommendations in Goodreads and I should thank Goodreads for that. This book clarified many of misconceptions about stoicism.

The Oraganized Mind

Despite my several attempts to oThe_Organized_Mind_hardcover_coverrganize information in different ways, I am still to find a way that works decently for me. My job frequently requires synthesizing a lot of information,  and to do that I need to quickly retrieve information, often stored in different digital formats across multiple machines.

Retrieving information is primarily a function of how one’s brain processes and organizes information, and how information is organized in physical or digital space. Poor organization puts a lot of stress on brain’s limited resources and I get frustrated when I am not able to recall something easily.

The frustration led me to invest in a comprehensive study of whatever that can help me in organizing stuff in a better way. The Konmari method, made popular by the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is great for un-cluttering the life but did not help me much in  managing information and how I can use or understand my mind so that I can organize better.

But The  Organized Mind does a great job in that regard. There are a lot of great tips but more than that it is also an exciting read on how our mind manages, organizes information. What I like most about the book that it goes beyond suggestions/tips and explains the rationale and science behind it. It surely makes my life a bit easier.

Poverty and its brutal consequences

Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters (Church Corner). New York, NY, USA, c.1889.

Poverty invokes different kinds of reactions and responses from different people and it has many dimensions. That makes it a very fascinating topic for researchers, philosophers, religious teachers, philanthropists, writers… It can incite brilliant intellectual expositions, economic, karmic or systematic explanations, petty rhetoric or emotional outbursts. But from those who are victim of it, a mention of word poverty, often incites visceral responses which are triggered by the memories of going to bed hungry, backbreaking inhuman labour to earn their living, helplessness of seeing infants struggle to get the basic care. A large number of books have been written about the impact of poverty and what it does to its victims.

However, study and researches keep on throwing surprises. This article, a brilliant narrative by CHRISTIAN H. COOPER someone who experienced poverty and overcame it, provides the biological dimensions of poverty. It aptly describes poverty as a disease.

I am summarizing some of the key points of the article but entire article is a great read.

1. Poverty has  biological effects and these effects can last for more than one generation.

“First, that the stresses of being poor have a biological effect that can last a lifetime. Second, that there is evidence suggesting that these effects may be inheritable, whether it is through impact on the fetus, epigenetic effects, cell subtype effects, or something else.” from Why Poverty is Like a Disease

2.  Poor people are from the outset at disadvantage in most of the merit-based systems and yes, poor people are not poor because they deserved to be poor.

“What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line.” from Why Poverty is Like a Disease

3. Those who overcome poverty are exception. And, escaping poverty is a matter of chance, and not a matter of merit.

”Did I show initiative? Sure. And there have been many people who have interpreted my escape from poverty as a confirmation of some foundational meritocracy that justifies the whole system. But the fact is hillbilly country is full of people just as desperate to get out as me, and taking just as inventive a set of measures. Yes, I am the exception that proves the rule—but that rule is that escape from poverty is a matter of chance, and not a matter of merit.” from Why Poverty is Like a Disease

Kindle Unlimited in India – Value for Money if you love Indian authors.

I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited when it was launched in India. It was a very attractive offer. You pay less than INR 2k for unlimited book reading. Pure joy for any bibliophile with a Kindle. In next 2-3 days, I realized that the books available under Kindle Unlimited are very limited and even those who were available were not worth my time. I did continue my subscription due to my sheer laziness and some bit of hope that I might find a couple of books that were worth trying. I was disappointed in the end.

After that I did not renew my Kindle Unlimited subscription. But in last 2-3 months, Kindle store started stocking a large number of titles in Hindi. The collection is impressive. Amazon India store has really added a great amount of vernacular content. I have always felt that since Kindle became my primary mode of reading, I started reading fewer books in Hindi. Now, I have picked quite some books in Hindi on my Kindle. It seems that Kindle Unlimited is slowing offering better value to its Indian subscribers but it is still nowhere close to what is available to US subscribers. Also, one key feature that Amazon India store does not let us lend/share Kindle books that we have bought to other family members or friend. You can do that by setting a family library if you are buying books from Amazon US store.

For the time being I am sticking to Kindle Unlimited but I expect it to evolve and respect India customers.

The Amazon India bookstore itself needs to pay some attention to its design and features. If I am looking to pick a New York Times bestseller, there is no way to readily explore the titles. Usually, I explore the titles on Amazon US store and then buy them in India store. The bestsellers listed in Amazon India stores.. well do not reflect my taste (see the picture above) and I believe that of a majority bibliophiles.

The biggest Productivity bottleneck for gadget/tech-lovers, and how to overcome it.

We love our gadgets and tinkering with them. We like to use the best of the best and cannot wait to get our hands on the next ‘beta’ or ‘developer version’. We experiments with all the shortcuts, mail-management systems, inbox zero, GTD… But if you are like me, we always feel that our systems are not perfect and spend significant time on improving them. Ironically, the time spent on improving the systems makes our systems inefficient.

I spent a lot of time perfecting my system and religiously improving my system to achieve the next level of productivity. And, I realized that the biggest bottleneck in achieving the next level of efficiency and productivity is ‘my in-flux productivity setup’. I was not letting my ‘system’ to mature.

I decided to correct the system and here are some learnings from that.

  1. Knowing the limitations of your ‘system’ is key to achieving stress-free productivity. It is more important than knowing several fancy features in detail. We need to know the limitations. I messed my backup once as I was not aware of Apple Time-machine’s backup limitations. (Apple Time-machine is not for archiving or long duration backup.)
  2. Stick to one Operating System. I have worked extensively on all the major operating systems and have multiple machines configured with different operating systems. I tried my best to achieve a seamless syncing and uniform work-flow that can work on my MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android setup. But, it is impossible. Better, stick to one operating system, and a compatible mobile operating system and life becomes blissful. My vote goes for MacOS and iOS setup till google comes up with a better OS for laptops or Microsoft comes up with better mobile OS.
  3. Remove as many decision points as you can. My machines had 3–4 word processing applications, 4 note-taking application and subscription to 4 cloud storage/photo storage services. I was in love with Ulysses interface, Scrivener’s extensive feature list and forced to have Microsoft Word because of professional compulsions. I was using multiple mail clients (Airmail, Outlook, Mailbird, Thunderbird etc.) on my multiple machines. I realized that for every routine work I needed to make a choice which machine and which application to use. I made my life much easier by removing all the decisions and making my next steps automatic.

I am now working on perfecting my system and I am quite excited by the outcomes.

Social media is not the barometer of nation’s mood.

Social media is increasingly influencing policy makers, politicians and bureaucrats in visualizing and shaping some of the key decisions that have a very comprehensive impact on all citizens. Mass media too these days is factoring social media reactions heavily in their analysis and in building their viewpoint on many issues. If we go by social media indicators, Trump was losing heavily, BJP was going to win a majority in Bihar and Delhi elections, and demonetization was to have some minor inconveniences to most of the people.

Social media has limited capacity to assess the impact or reaction of mass when you consider that it only represents a fraction of overall population. Only 36.5% people in India have access to internet (just to keep in mind that in majority of internet access surveys define internet users as those who have accessed Internet once, the percentage of regular users is very small). And, 71% of the internet users are male, and majority resides in urban and peri-urban areas.

Furthermore, the distinctly urban, male-dominated, educated and privileged profile of social media does not only result in opinions and views that only reflect beliefs and interests of dominant segments but also discourages others who do not have similar opinions from sharing their opinions, a phenomenon known as spiral of silence.

Another very interesting aspect of social media platform is how an idea or opinion is judged. It is all about likes, retweet and shares. And, everyone’s likes, retweets and shares carry the same weight; approval or disapproval is just a mouse click away. This is relevant and logical when we are talking about topics such as who is more popular Shahrukh Khan or Akshay Kumar, or whether you like a Mac or PC.But it takes a very interesting turn when we are assessing evaluating technical topics based on social media reaction.

Some topics, such as whether we should be going for genetically modified crops, we should set up nuclear power-plants, or what should be our approach to managing environment and forest, require far more technical understanding and expertise for discussion and cannot be judged on the basis of likes, dislikes or retweets. But on social media opinion (read approval/disapproval in form of a click) of an environmental expert is same as that of any other person. 1000 retweets and shares of a viewpoint/opinion do not make that valid if the opinion/viewpoint is technically flawed or invalid.

Doubling Farmers’ Income – Making it a reality


A view of agriculture fields in Khunti Block (Jharkhand)

Our Prime Minister’s call to double the farmers’s income1 by 2022 is an opportune call as the growth in farmers’ income has stagnated and it caused significant distress to farmers. Doubling the farmers’ income by 2020, if it is achieved, would be a remarkable achievement as it had not been achieved in last 3 decades. The challenge is more steep when it comes to doubling the income of farmers who have less than 10 acres of agricultural land2.

Most of our small and marginal farmers are predominantly engaged in the cultivation of food grains. Almost 38 percent of total cropped area is used for cultivating rice and wheat. Unfortunately, our per hectare yield for these two crops is quite low. Our rice yield is 3721 kgs/ha and wheat yield is 3177 kgs/ha. China has rice yield of 6775 kgs/ha and wheat yield 4987 kgs/ha. The practice of cultivating food grains using traditional methods in small land holdings is often one of the main reasons of low farm income.

NITI Aayog has listed many interventions and given a strategic direction at macro level to transform agriculture sector and reach the goal of doubling the farmers’ income. However, interventions at micro-level with community/farmers participation need to be promoted to achieve this goal for small and marginal farmers.

A couple of weeks back, a visit to a tribal village in Jharkhand showcased us brilliant examples of community engagement, micro-planning and dedicated focus that achieved the goal of doubling the farmers’ income in less 3 years. Tata Trusts in partnership with local NGO partners has transformed the agriculture practices of many tribal villages in Jharkhand.

The villages, we visited were 15-20 kms from Khunti, some yet to get functional road connectivity, electricity and proper mobile network coverage. Villagers (almost all from Munda tribe) have been engaged in the their traditional agriculture and lac cultivation for their livelihood, and had very low income from their fields. The per household income ranged from INR 20-40K per year. But in last 2-3 years, most of the households in these villages have doubled their income by changing their agriculture practices and establishing market linkages to get better value for the crop.


A farmer taking care of his tomato crop

Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CINI), a Tata Trust supported initiative, worked extensively on understanding the cropping pattern, village resources, agriculture practices and the overall infrastructural challenges of each village/cluster.The intervention design and strategy leveraged the local knowledge, and practices and community leaders. The key feature of these interventions that worked as per my understanding are the following and provide some good learning for similar projects.

a) Income Diversification- Providing at least three sources of income to each households-Apart from agriculture, lac cultivation or sericulture, and rearing of pigs were promoted for additional sources of income.

b) Transition from diverse low value crops to selected high value crops-Making a large number of farmers to switch from their traditional crop to a particular high value crop is not easy. But to achieve a viable scale and marketable volume it is essential. In Khunti cluster, the selected crop is a high yielding variety of tomatoes which has a ready market in Jharkhand and Bihar. The intense community mobilization make it possible that a large number of farmers agreed to adopt a particular crop and suggested agriculture techniques.

c) Providing market linkages by aggregating farmers’ produce- Aggregation of produce and planned harvesting ensured that intermediaries and vendors started procuring from these villages for the first time.

d) Community Engagement and Participation- Local resource persons, recruited from village, were given responsibility to ensure that all farmers are following the prescribed schedule for agriculture operations. All key activities, milestones were recorded. Local resource persons and the community leader made it sure that interventions implemented as per their design.

  1. Here the assumption is to double the farmers’ real income (adjusted using the Consumer Price Index) and not the nominal income. ?
  2. Chand, Ramesh, Raka Saxena, and Simmi Rana. “Estimates and Analysis of Farm Income in India, 1983-84 to 2011-12.” Economic and Political Weekly 50.22 (2015): 139-145.APA ?

Empathy and Economics

One of the most annoying thing in the pre-cable/satellite television era was Doordarashan mourning demise of political leaders or other eminent personalities. It meant that there is no music, movies or anything related to entertainment on our television. As a kid, we did not like the forced mourning on us. The other thing that we did not like was the news for hearing impaired.

Once the cable TV made its entry in our home, we completely forgot the forced national mourning and the news for hearing impaired. In fact, we forgot Doordarshan.

Sometime back, on Pune airport, waiting for my delayed flight I looked at the television set placed overhead in the waiting area. It was tuned to Doordarshan. And, it was time for the news for hearing impaired. The news, apart from nostalgia, left me thinking that why does only Doordarshan broadcasts this news? Why not any other channel?

The answer was obvious and a bit uncomfortable one. Broadcasting news for hearing impaired is not a profitable business. It is not viable. And in the era of market based solutions, the market for this news is not attractive. Providing solutions for those who do not constitute ‘a viable market’ is not the priority of the market. The economics does not make somebody enter this segment. And, it is ‘Economics’, not empathy, that drives the market.

Addressing Household Air Pollution and Celebrating Cooking : Dharma Chef

Household Air Pollution (HAP) is emerging as a major health risk and is responsible for more  than 4.3 million premature deaths globally every year. The biggest and most common contributor to HAP is the use of biomass fuels for cooking in our traditional cookstoves. Availability of free biomass, free traditional cookstoves, and our age-old and ingrained cooking practices, which revolve around these traditional cookstoves make these polluting and health threatening cookstoves quite attractive and ‘comforting’ to majority of rural households.

Making these household move from cooking on traditional cookstoves to LPG or other clean cooking solutions such as induction stove, advanced biomass cookstoves can result in substantial economic, health and environmental benefits. Yet, households have been very stubborn in their use of traditional cookstoves and fuels. The transition from traditional cookstoves to new generation cooking devices is excruciatingly slow and frustrating.

While there are many factors such as product performance, cleaner fuel availability and pricing that can be attributed to this continued use of inefficient traditional cookstove and slow adoption of dvanced biomass cookstove, the need for behaviour change has been identified as of the most significant factors. In fact, some studies suggest that it might be even more critical than the economical factors.

“Empirical work demonstrates that people do not make decisions by taking into account all costs and benefits. People want to conform to social expectations. People do not have unchanging or arbitrarily changing tastes. Preferences depend on the context in which they are elicited and on the social institutions that have formed the interpretive framework which individuals see the world.”- (Mind Society and Behaviour, World Bank, 2015).

The transition is complex for a common user. The complexity of transition often decides against the health and economic benefits of the clean cooking devices. It requires them to adopt to a new device, a new way of cooking and probably some compromise on the taste.

“It overcooked my rice.”

“The chapatis were not as good as my regular chapatis.”

“My family did not like the taste of food prepared on this.”

“I cannot cook my regular dishes on this.”

The above are the most common remarks one gets to hear in the early transition efforts. The transition becomes a drab and often there are negative memories that get associated with the new devices.

These problem forced us to take a different route for promoting transition to clean cooking devices. Something that was not dull, something that was exciting and resulted in associating positive memories with the transition. Something that excited and motivated users enough to make them find a way to overcome the early adoption challenges.  We launched a cooking competition for rural households: “Dharma Chef”.


Dharma Chef participants making “chapati” on induction stoves.

A multi-stage state level competition in which participants cook traditional and fusion dishes on clean cooking devices (such as induction stove, or advance biomass cookstove). While on surface it was just like any other cooking competition, it was designed to achieve the following:

  • Motivation:  motivate users to adopt, improvise and develop new ways to cook traditional dishes on these new devices.
  • Education: Create awareness about the challenge of household air pollution and need for clean cooking devices.
  • Celebration: Celebrate cooking skills of rural cooks and associate positive memories with these devices.

The campaign is doing very well on all these counts. We have got people to make “Roti” on induction.. Something that many consider quite a challenge.. The event not only gathered the women (who take the responsibility of cooking in rural India) but their whole family participated. They cheered them up while she cooked. The campaign is also making all the winning recipes compiled into a cookbook and the next steps is to make the videos available on dedicated youtube channel.

Dharma Chef campaign is being run by Dharma Life and supported by Tata Trusts. At present the campaign is running in Gujarat but soon it is going to be launched in other states as well.