Book Reviews of some priceless books..!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Solving Tough Problems

Solving Tough Problems

Listen to this article...! Listen to this article

“When I was in college – I thought that the world’s toughest problems would be solved by the world’s smartest people and I wanted to be one of them. Our textbooks contained questions at the end of each chapter and before the exam I worked through every exercise so I could get a perfect grade for there would only be ONE right answer.”

“But the world doesn’t work the way my ONE right answer textbooks said it did. Something else goes on that drives this world and I must find it……”

This is inner voice of a professional (could be you, me anybody) personified by
Adam Kahane – the author of a seminal book ‘Solving Tough Problems’ that offers a new approach to addressing peacefully our most complex challenges. Our most common way of solving problems—at home, at work, in our communities, in national and international affairs—is to use our expertise and authority to apply piece-by-piece, tried-and-true "best practices." This works for simple, familiar problems. But it doesn't work for the complex, unfamiliar, conflictual problems that we increasingly face. When we try to solve these problems using traditional approaches, the problems end up either getting stuck.

In this inspiring and thought provoking book Adam Kahane reflects that we can learn to create environments that enable new ideas and creative solutions to emerge - even in the most stuck, polarized contexts. Through an unexpected experience in South Africa during the transition away from apartheid, he became involved in facilitating a series of extraordinary high-conflict, high-stakes problem-solving efforts in Colombia during the civil war; in Argentina during the collapse; in Guatemala after the genocide; and in Israel and Cyprus. Kahane tells his stories and distils from them a "simple, but not easy" approach all of us can use to solve our own toughest problems.

So here’s what he suggests as the mantra (I have tried to keep it as terse as possible) :

  • Breathing In – Many of us get struck by holding on tightly to our opinions and plans, identities and truths. The pattern of not talking and not listening to others is a symptom of being struck. In order to observe the world on a broader perspective we should start listening actively. The more open we are – the more open can we be to things happening around us and inside us.
  • Talking Politely – Politeness is not a way of talking. When we are being polite (“How are you?” “I’m fine”) – we just try to fit in and keeping the social network as a whole unchanged. Talking only about concepts is one way of being polite. When somebody speaks personally, passionately and from the heart – the conversation deepens. When a team develops a habit of speaking openly, then the problem they are working on begins to shift. Thus, politeness maintains a status quo and everyone sees him or herself as a key team player as well.
  • Speaking Up – To change the status quo we must speak up. Often this is extremely difficult. People hesitate to say what they are thinking for many reasons, not only extraordinary but ordinary ones as well: fear of being disliked or considered impolite etc. Unless we openly speak about the problem at hand – we can not concentrate on it holistically.
  • Being Reflective – To create new realities – we have to listen reflectively. It is just not enough to hear the chorus of other voices – we MUST hear the contribution of our own voice. We have to recognize ourselves as actors who influence the outcome of the solution to a problem under investigation.
  • Empathy does wonders – We can not develop creative solutions to complex problems unless we see, hear, open up to and include the humane aspect of all stakeholders and ourselves. We have to learn to listen to people in a way that encourages them to realize their own potential and the potential in their situation. This is what empathy is all about – listening from within others’ hearts.

Finally, Adam accentuates upon the fact that a problem that is generatively complex can not be solved with a pre-packaged solution from the past. A solution has to be worked out as the situation unfolds through a creative, emergent and generative process as described above. Engaging and inspiring, personal and practical, this book offers a down-to-earth, hopeful way forward: a way of "open-minded, open-hearted, open-willed talking and listening" vital for creating a lasting change.

Having said everything - now the question arises – how we can change ourselves to allow us to contribute in creative and quick problem solving? The answer as you might have guess by now – is PRACTICE. Like to practice meditating, we simply take notice of where our mind is and continue over & over to bring our attention back to our breath – likewise, we simply have to take notice of how we are and continue to bring our attention back to being present, relaxing & opening up. Fortunately, we have plethora of opportunities to do this practice – including in every conversation, in every context, every day.

Lets start participating in creating another, better world.
I am in…are you? Do post in your comments folks :)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dreams, symbols, signs, and adventure follow the reader like echoes of ancient wise voices in "The Alchemist", a novel that combines an atmosphere of Medieval mysticism with the song of the desert. With this symbolic masterpiece Paulo Coelho states that we should never falter from our aspirations and destiny, and urges everyone to follow their dreams, because to find our "Personal Myth" and our mission on Earth is the way to find "God", meaning happiness, fulfillment, and the ultimate purpose of creation. The novel illustrates the tale of Santiago, a boy who has a dream and the courage to follow it. After listening to "the signs" the boy ventures in his personal, sometimes dreadful journey of exploration and self-discovery, symbolically searching for a hidden treasure located near the pyramids in Egypt.

The story begins with the little boy’s decision to go for his dream, and his father's only advice is "Travel the world until you see that our castle is the greatest and our women the most beautiful". In his journey, Santiago sees the greatness of the world, and meets all kinds of exciting people like kings and alchemists. However, by the end of the story, he discovers that "treasure lies where your heart belongs", and that the treasure was the journey itself, the discoveries he made, and the wisdom he acquired in the trail.

"The Alchemist", is an exciting novel that bursts with optimism; it is the kind of novel that tells you that everything is possible as long as you really want it to happen. That may sound like an oversimplified version of new-age philosophy and mysticism, but as Coelho states "simple things are the most valuable and only wise people appreciate them". As the alchemist himself says, when he appears to Santiago in the form of an old king "when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true". This is the core of the novel's philosophy and a motif that echoes behind Coelho's writing all through "The Alchemist". And isn't it true that the whole of humankind desperately wants to believe the old king when he says that the greatest lie in the world is that at some point we lose the ability to control our lives, and become the pawns of fate. Perhaps this is the secret of Coelho's success: that he tells people what they want to hear, or rather that he tells them that what they wish for but never thought possible could even be probable.

Coelho also suggests that those who do not have the courage to follow their " Personal Myth", are doomed to a life of emptiness, misery, and unfulfillment. Fear of failure seems to be the greatest obstacle to happiness. As the old crystal-seller in the story tragically confesses: "I am afraid that great disappointment awaits me, and so I prefer to dream". This is where Coelho really captures the drama of man, who sacrifices fulfillment to conformity, who knows he can achieve greatness but denies to do so, and ends up living a life of void. It is interesting to see that Coelho presents the person who denies to follow his dream as the person who denies to see God, and that "every happy person carries God within him". However, only few people choose to follow the road that has been made for them, and find God while searching for their destiny, and their mission on earth.

It is also symbolic that Santiago finds his soul-mate, and the secrets of wisdom in the wilderness of the desert.In the desert, Santiago meets his "
twin-soul" and discovers that love is the core of existence and creation.As Coelho explains, when we love, we always try to improve ourselves, and that's when everything is possible. The Alchemist is a novel that may appeal to everybody, because we can all identify with Santiago: all of us have dreams, and are dying for somebody to tell us that they may come true. The novel skillfully combines words of wisdom, philosophy, and simplicity of meaning and language, which makes it particularly readable and accounts for its bestselling status.
For those of you who are fans of Paulo Coelho like me the following sites are a must c:

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Hidden Pool

During my short yet memorable stay in
Trivandrum, one day while sauntering thru' the passageway in TCS Library there I came across Children's section. After a little while, my eyes got set on the catchy cover of Ruskin Bond's first Novel for children - "The Hidden Pool". My inquisitive mind couldn't wait further and I looked around for a void place in Library.

On my way towards "the" place - I met some students who had some questions 'n' doubts. Finally, after exchanging few more pleasantries - I sat down and began reading....!

"The Hidden Pool" - happens to be an enchanting story of enduring true friendship. The protagonist here is an english boy named Laurie who like other kids is a naive soul whos inquisitive mind is always full of questions. Laurie moves to a small hill town with his parents when his father gets posted here on work for two years. Laurie has a nice habit of observing things very closely and he appreciates the nature and its elements a lot. Once he settles well in new town and starts going to school - he makes two friends. Anil - his first friend in new town is son of a local cloth merchant & Kamal - his "special" friend is an orphan who unfortunately lost his parents during the Partition. The quality of Kamal which inspires Laurie is that he has a passion for studying and sells buttons & shoelaces to make some money to fund his strudies. His greatest dream read secret ambition) is to be able to go to BIG college by putting in best of his efforts. Laurie ensure that whenever Kamal comes over to his place in evenings - he buys someting from him. What amazes Kaurie is how come Kamal remains self motivated and +ive on all instants.

Anil & Kamal introduces our dear 'seedha' Laurie to a bewitching world of beetle races, chaat, ghosts, lukka chippi and Stapuu and Holi - the Indian festival of colours. One day their adventurous spirits take them to go towards the mountainside and to their utter amazement they find an exotic 'n' water pool amidst lush green surroundings. A small waterfall came down from the rocks on one side of the hill aformed this deep round pool of apple green water. They now start mentioning this pool as theirs (humaara) for they've discovered it after all...!

This secret pool soon becomes the haunt of the three friends and at the pool the boys fish, build dams, take midnight dips, wrestle, and ride buffaloes. They make it a point to visit the place on a regular basis. It is there that togther plan their grand adventure: a trek to the Pindari Glacier, were no one from their town has gone before - they wished to be FIRSTS yet again.. On the slopes of the beautiful mountain they meet pumpkin-eating bears, and keep a close lookout for the Abominable Snow-woman who feeds children fruit, honey, rice and earthworms - almost everything and anything you one can imagine in wildest of the imaginations.

The story was a real eye opener for me --- since as I navigated across the pages - I could actually see lots of me in either of the boys...its just that the Innocence, the simplicity, the modesty somehow seems to have vanished into thin air somewhere....!

The twist in the story comes when Laurie's parents say that his father's assignment will get over in a week and then they may leave India. The news came as a shock to poor boy who had just now started learning life on his own - in a way he wanted to. Upon disclosing this piece of news to Kamal & Anil - they almost appear heartbroken. Finally, the guys decide that wherever they are on the globe, they'll surely meet atleast once more in their lifetime @ The Hidden Pool - which united them and created an unbreakable bond - the bond of true friendship.

There are a lot of take aways from the story of three wonderful boys told in single person by Ruskin Bond....!!For your year later Laurie received letter from Kamal that he had successfully passed his board exams - Kamal said he just had to give some good news in his letter to Laurie - that's what pushed him to work harder!

And rest as they history.....!

'As a boy, reading was my religion. It helped me to discover my soul. Later, writing helped me to record its journey.'-- Ruskin Bond

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Wisdom Of Crowds

In the endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few”. This seemingly counterintuitive notion has endless and major ramifications for how businesses operate, how economies are and how we live our daily lives. With delightfully clear prose and immaculate erudition, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, ant biology, behavioral economics etc. – to illustrate how this principle operates in the real world.

The examples he uses are surprisingly down to earth and fun to ponder at:

Why is the line in which you are standing always the longest and slowest? Why is the TV network so awful with so much of junk advertisements? Why are there traffic jams? What’s the best way to win money on a game show? Why is it that you can buy a screw anywhere in the world and be sure that it will a bolt bought 10,000 miles away? Do we as voters really think democracy is an excellent vehicle for making intelligent decisions while casting vote?

From such examples he draws brilliant conclusions about human society, free markets, scientific research and even the environment. This book is truly an eye opener for anyone interested in making things happen.

The author identifies the following characteristics of smart crowds:

  • Cognitive Diversity: The more diverse individuals are the more will be the inputs for brainstorming.
  • Decentralization: This helps people think on their own feet rather than following the dictator.
  • Independence & Passion: Group members must come to a collective verdict but at the same time must have the satisfaction of knowing that they have done their best.

Experts no matter how smart they are have limited amounts of information. Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest and not consensus or compromise. Group intelligence is evident under conditions of true uncertainty – when the right answer is seemingly unknowable – like in case of stock markets.

If you use the internet regularly – getting instantaneous responses from with the exact page you need high up in the rankings from Google won’t surprise you. But then, its worth letting yourself be a little amazed at what happened during those 0.10 secs. Google’s heart is its Page Rank algorithm – that capitalizes on the uniquely democratic characteristic of the web by using its vast linking structure as an organizational tool. It interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote and assesses a page’s importance by number of votes it receives. Thus in that 0.12 secs Google seeks inputs from the diversest resources to produce amazingly accurate search results.

The author describes such everyday phenomenon with concrete reasoning to illustrate the wisdom of crowds. In large groups, as he points out – the governing assumption seems to be that when things are uncertain – the best thing to do is just follow along. Herders may think that they are right since group’s decision would be perfect but if we have herders as a majority in the group – the group as a whole stops being sensible and smart.

Thus, I found this book as a biography of an idea~one with important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, conduct businesses & collaborate, coordinate and compete in our complex world.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

Lets explore into who’s who theme a bit to spot about Richard P.Feynman—the man who has got the geek appeal in spades. He’s theperson who was known for breaking safes while working on theManhattan project. Later, he was a widely loved Professor of Quantum Physics and was the coolest Nobel laureate ever. He wasalso very enthusiastic about things beyond science; he was an aviddrummer and dabbled in painting as well. Hell, he’s even got his own Think Different poster!

The book “Surely You must be Joking Mr. Feynman” is an epitome ofthe curious within of Feynman’s innovative and intelligent ways of solving things with a simple twist of brain. A few stories from the bookgive us an insight into the same:

**”FIXING RADIOS BY THINKING”—wherein young Richard goes to aguy’s house, looks at a broken radio, walks around for a few minutes(to the concern of the radio’s owner), then proceeds to fix it bytwiddling with one little part. Fixing radios with no prior training was aquite noticeable in that curious character.

**Feynman visited the plant where uranium was being extracted forthe Manhattan project. His purpose was to prevent the factory fromexploding by ensuring they did not store volatile chemicals too closeto each other for too long. It was his second trip and he was reviewingthe plans for the factory with two other men, but didn’t really knowhow to read blueprints. They’d been going on for twenty minutes andhe didn’t want to look like an idiot and ask, “What does this symbolmean?” Instead, he pointed at what he thought was a valve andasked, “What if this one fails?” They first responded,”oh it will be OK”,but when he was asked later how he found it so quickly he said, “Justask which one is a valve”.

So, you definitely want to read the book of such a curious character,even if you’re not into quantum physics and the like. Advancedgeekery isn’t required. It’s really a fun to read about such aninquisitive and multifaceted intellectual. The book goes on to explorehis days working in Los Alamos on the atomic bomb and how helearned to pick the locks (for fun) of safes that contained top-secretinformation.

The book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" does not have anytraditional or methodical format of reading dictation. Instead, it is acollection of stories, anecdotes, and views that Dr. Feynman has heldthroughout the various periods of his life.

The book covers the major aspects of his life, beginning with hisboyhood on Long Island, continuing on to his work at Los Alamos onthe atomic bomb—the genius in him spoke out at a tender age itself,and culminated with his various adventures further in teaching. Dr.Feynman recalls his undergraduate years at MIT, his graduate studiesat Princeton, his stint at Cornell, and how he ended up at Caltech,with a brief divergence in Brazil, so the curios genius never missed outany of great temple of knowledge centres. Interestingly enough,Feynman avoids talking about the two events that have made himthe most famous: his Nobel Prize and his participation in theChallenger Disaster investigation. While reading this book, one isrepeatedly made aware of Dr. Feynman's insatiable curiosity for worldaround him and the people that inhabit it. He was never afraid toexperience the new and unknown things. That same insatiablecuriosity also got him into several dangerous situations. On oneoccasion he almost set his bedroom on fire during one of hischildhood home laboratory "experiments." His irreverence for andignorance of social propriety shocked his fraternity brothers at MIT,and caused the wife of Princeton University dean to exclaim, "Surelyyou're joking, Mr. Feynman!”, and so, here comes the origin of thetitle of the book.

Dr. Feynman continually exploited the laws and realms of science forthe greatest possible enjoyment. His awe and joy for how the universeworks is infectious, and readers will find themselves stopping towonder why they never asked themselves the questions that heposes. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is a very enjoyable, can'tput-it-down read. Be you an English major, or a budding physicist, thehuman story behind an esteemed scientist is captivating and revealsthat science, and the people behind it, are not as dry as your highschool physics textbook may have lead you to believe.

'The Search'

What does the world want? According to author John Battelle, a company that answers that question in all its shades of meaning-can unlock the most intractable riddles of business and arguably the human culture itself and that’s what Google has been doing. Google today has become the gateway to instant knowledge. Hundreds of millions of people use it to satisfy their wants, needs, fears & obsessions, creating an enormous artifact that the author calls ‘Database Of Intentions’.

The Search’ is not exactly the corporate history of Google. It gives an insight about the past, present and future of search technology and the enormous impact it’s starting to have on marketing, media, pop culture, job hunting, research and just about every other sphere of human interest. The ambitious book has several fascinating and thought provoking sections.

Read how Idea Labs’ Bill Gross who created the pay-per-click at GoTo wasn’t able to beat Google; read how the company survived the dot com crash; read how the academically oriented founders – Sergey Brin & Larry Page were inspired by academic peer review in their algorithm which later formed the basis of Google.

Battelle lucidly explains how search technology actually works, explores the amazing power of targeted advertising and reports on the frenzy of the most talked about Google IPO-when the company rewrote the rules of Wall Street. He points that somewhere in the Google’s archives, you can find silent plotting of a would-be bomb maker, inquisitiveness research of a research scholar, excitement of a teenager hunting for the latest music track and even the anxiety of a programmer trying to find possible fix for a bug in the piece of code!!

Towards the final part of the book, author visualizes about ‘Perfect Search’ in ‘Semantic Web’ where we can get results for queries like “Give me all the documents on the web that have at least one page in Arabic, are located in MidWest but are not connected to say Al Jazeera” (Of course not the kind you would dare to punch into Google today!).

For anyone who wishes to understand how Google succeeded in creating a goldmine of information & the implications of a world in which every click can be preserved forever – The Search is an eye opening and indispensable read.

Happy Googling!!