When breath becomes air

This is not a review as such about the book by Paul Kalanithi but essentially the questions that popped in my mind when reading the book. There is no doubt we have lost such a dedicated, talented neurosurgeon. It’s very sad to see that after all the efforts he has put in, when it was time to reap the benefits he was affected by lung cancer. In these days of corporate hospitals where medical profession has become just another money minting business, we get to see very few people like Paul Kalanithi who don’t look at it like a job but as their calling and dedicate their lives for the suffering of the people.
The point about taking up something just as a job vs. taking it up as your calling has really struck me. I guess that makes all the difference between how seriously we take our work and how much we enjoy doing it even if it demands insane amounts of our time and energy. Be it any profession, I think if everyone gives a serious thought to what they really want to do rather than what benefits/social status a job provides, the world would be a much better place.
Another point that lingers in my mind is about what is considered to be a meaningful life? This might sound contradictory to the above point about doing what your calling is and dedicating entirely to what you want to do. The point is about where to draw a line between work and experiencing the pleasures of life. Maybe for some people, their work and call of duty is the way of life rather than ephemeral pleasures of life. In my view there has to be a right mix of a stoic and an epicurean. One cannot be living life to full potential by being at either one of the two extremes.
At one point in the book he mentions about his regular lunch in the hospital which is just a diet coke and an ice-cream sandwich. I was shocked and also felt sad that inspite of knowing all the ills of processed food, sugary drinks, etc how can the doctors themselves live on these? I agree that this point is totally tangential to the crux of what the book is about but I couldn’t really digest the fact that inspite of the knowledge we have, we sometimes neglect or ignore doing what is right for us. People who know me well and about my recent inclination towards avoiding processed food and going organic way might think I always come back to this topic no matter what the context is about :). However I seriously feel that this is something that should not be taken lightly and more importantly in the light of recent studies about the impact of processed foods on our health and environment.
Though there is lot of research pointing to the processed foods and chemicals as one of the common reasons for cancers in the past few decades, I still don’t get the point why nothing is being done to at least label these foods appropriately. It also reminded me about an article from food babe recently about the cafeterias in hospitals selling all this processed food instead of serving healthy food options. Why can’t the hospitals at least start serving fresh and healthy food instead of selling processed fast food? I am not saying that food or hectic schedule was the culprit in Paul Kalanithi’s case. All I’m trying to say is that we could at least reduce the probability of cancers by avoiding processed foods as much as possible and reducing a bit of stress in our lives. It was saddening to see a person end up with cancer while he himself was into the profession of treating cancers.

I was really amazed by how he has become a neurosurgeon (the toughest stream in medicine) while starting off with B.A in literature. This is like a lesson to all of us with mental blocks that we cannot learn or do something else than what we studied. I am happy that I read this book and hope to imbibe at least some of the good points in my day-to-day life. May his soul rest in peace.

Merchants of Doubt

This book is a very interesting read on how greedy companies can go to any lengths for profits and also how few influential people can change the policy decisions of governments by using the “element of doubt” as their weapon.
Here is the summary of what the book is all about –

This book shows us how fear of something can make us do anything. Even highly talented scientists can go to the extent of twisting/ignoring the facts out of their fears. Post second world war, when the cold war was at its peak, I think many scientists who worked on the atomic bomb were still having the fear that Soviet Union might attack USA anytime. The fear of communism taking over capitalism, resulted in few of the distinguished scientists going about blindly supporting the capitalists even when there was more than enough evidence of the harm the companies are causing. All over the book, we can see that the same set of scientists were involved in the issues of tobacco smoking, acid rain, post war (World War – II) nuclear arms development, effects of passive smoking, global warming, ozone layer depletion. The principle of free-market capitalism and importance of hearing “both sides” has been used and abused by people who didn’t want to admit the truth about the impacts of industrial capitalism.

Secondly, it’s sad to see the extremes to which companies can go to defend their products and protect their profits even if it’s at the cost of people’s lives. Though the industries discussed about in the book had conclusive evidence of the ill effects of smoking, acid rain, passive smoking, global warming, etc they kept lobbying to stop any kind of restrictions from the government. Under the cover of capitalism and freedom of speech these companies have ruined the environment and misled millions of people.

The other interesting point is how to defend yourself from criticism. All the lobbyists follow a simple principle of instilling doubts to mislead people. The strategy is simple….just start a controversy against the research, get it published in major newspapers and magazines that common people read and the job is done. The actual research and the results are generally published in all the science magazines that the common people don’t read often or don’t have access to. So, what reaches the public is the controversy than the actual facts.
That brings us to the impact of media and internet. We see that with the scores of 24×7 news channels all over, rise of Internet, anyone can now have their opinion heard, whether it is true or false. You pick any topic and there will always be opposing views on the internet. The burden is now on the people to check the credibility before blindly believing anything.

In conclusion, the below snippet from the book is one of the takeaways for me –
We take it for granted that great individuals – Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King – can have great positive impacts on the world. But we are loath to believe the same about negative impacts – unless the individuals are obvious monsters like Hitler or Stalin. But small number of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined, and have access to power.

I would strongly suggest this book to anyone who has any kind of doubts about global warming, effects of tobacco smoking, acid rain, etc. It’s an interesting coincidence that just when I finished reading this book, I came across this report from IPCC.  If you read the book, you will see that it’s this IPCC report of previous years that has been thrashed many a times by these handful of scientists.

Peek into a year of book reading

I restarted my habit of reading books last year after a gap of over an year. However, I was too lazy to write the book reviews. I hope to restart that as well soon. For now, here is the list of books I read last year and a few unfinished ones.

Here are some of the books I finished reading –

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)

And the Mountains Echoed

Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything

Few unfinished ones are Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Conceptual Blockbusting: A guide to Better Ideas. It was my third attempt to finish Fooled by Randomness but could only read 70% of it…definitely hope to finish it in my next attempt and then start reading The Black Swan by the same author.

Currently, I am half way through Merchants of Doubt and hope to finish it soon. Watch out for more updates and reviews.

Phantoms in the brain

Just done with reading the book Phantoms in the brain: Probing the mysteries of the human mind by Prof. V.S. Ramachandran. It is one of the best books I have read so far. Dr. Ramachandran explains the mystery of how the human brain works in such simple terms that even a person with no medical background can enjoy reading the book. The way he explains the problems of his  patients and the way he explains the reasons behind their behavior is really enthralling. I became a fan of Dr. Ramachandran when I watched his TED video (V S Ramachandran on your mind) prior to reading the book. The solution he came up for people suffering from phantom hands was ingenious. This demonstrates how complicated problems can be solved by simple ways if you think differently instead of blindly following the established ways. The various experiments he performs to understand patient’s problems better is simply awesome. The best part of the book is about the phantoms although the other cases discussed are equally interesting. I got slightly bored at the end, especially the last chapter, where he discusses about consciousness, meaning of self and the parts of the brain that might be involved. For people who are interested in knowing about human brain, this book is definitely a fun and easy way to quench their thirst.

Blood and Oil

Blood and Oil by Michael Klare gives a good insight into the dependence of America on oil and the resulting conflicts with other countries. The book starts with explaining the oil dependency and the dilemma about how and where to procure more oil from. And then the detailed explanation of how US got into alliance with Saudi Arabia for oil and how that dragged US into more regional conflicts there is very interesting. The author also explains how the growing resentment against America’s presence in Saudi resulted in increase of terrorism. The book also discusses the issues with Iran, Iraq and other Persian Gulf nations.
But after a few chapters, it kind of becomes repetitive when it comes to issues in the Caspian sea, Africa or other oil producing nations. Everywhere the issues are almost similar with the exception of names of places and people. Nevertheless the author drives his point home about the cost to be paid to get oil from these unstable and authoritarian regimes. And the cost is almost always blood of soldiers.
Apart from focusing on just America and it’s energy policy, the author also discusses about the growing competition from Russia and China to get cheap oil. Though these three nations do have a common goal of keeping the oil flowing without any interruptions, there is also a natural tendency to have more control than the other nations often resulting in tensions.
Towards the end I liked the solutions proposed and especially the first one which says that America’s energy policy should be separated from it’s foreign policy. The administration must stop getting into agreements that basically result in supporting the repugnant and undemocratic regimes thereby going against the basic human values.
On the whole, it’s a good read for people who are interested in knowing the details of at what cost the oil we use daily is procured and what lays ahead of us if something is not done now.

The sporty game

This book by John Newhouse gives a very good overview of the aircraft industry of the 60’s and 70’s. Though an old book, I liked it a lot as it dealt with the history of aviation industry and what all the manufacturers and the airlines had been through. I was surprised to know how big a player Pan am was in the early days. It was the launch customer of Boeing 707, the DC-8 and Boeing 747 😯 .
The most interesting part of the book was the introduction of Boeing 747 which almost took Boeing, Pan am and Pratt & Whitney to the verge of bankruptcy. I liked the way Boeing handled it’s troubles during the 747 period and how it learned from it mistakes eventually becoming one of the best and most productive manufacturers. This particular period in 60’s was when everyone predicted (of course wrongly) too much growth and went ahead unnecessarily with the wide-body planes. One key take away here for me is that mistakes do happen but the point is to learn from those and take some bold steps to come back (like Boeing did) instead of giving up.
The last chapter dealing with problems of American companies and the Japanese way of doing things was also good. The book slightly took away my respect for Rolls-Royce aircraft engines. Though it was good at cars, the way it could not stick to some of the promises it made for the Lockheed L-1011 was a bit disappointing and the way Haughton (the then Lockheed’s head) came up with a solution to save Rolls-Royce and eventually Lockheed by going ahead with L-1011 is appreciative. On the whole, the book ends with the rise of the Airbus Industrie and the beginning of the Airbus A-310 & A-320 programs. That’s the time when Airbus started posing a real threat to the American companies.The level of politics and the stakes involved in this industry is very interesting. It’s a good read for any aviation industry enthusiast and would definitely suggest it.

And here comes the boeing-747

Got my first scaled model of a boeing-747 as a gift recently 🙂 . Looks really cool and a perfect time to get it when I recently got two more books on air planes. Just started reading the book The Sporty Game: The High-Risk Competitive Business of Making and Selling Commercial Airliners. Have another one lined up.And just around this time downloaded a few air crash investigations episodes and also a series on building the airbus A380. Right now its all air planes….air planes and more air planes 😀 .

But the real big thing is about to come 😀 ……will be posting about it the coming weekend and when I say big, it’s really big and the ultimate one I always wanted to have. So, keep watching this space for the monster 🙂 .

Viral Loop

Just finished the book viral loop by Adam Penenberg. It was a good read and gave a good insight into how most of the companies based on viral growth have succeeded along with details of companies that failed to grow virally. This concept of viral growth and viral factor in a business was something new to me. Though I knew about almost all of the companies (and ofcourse their core business) that the author mentions about, this book gives a new perspective of looking at them. Starting from the days of Tupperware to Facebook, each chapter discusses about the different viral growth companies that came up and how they succeeded or failed. Along with viral factor in a business, the author also talks about how scalability becomes an issue in such businesses and how few of the companies could not survive as they could not handle the scalability issues. Also in a chapter or two, he discusses about the trade-off between the high viral factor and scalable architecture of the business.

On the whole, this is a good read for anyone who would like to know about how all the online businesses and social networks we have now started and are surviving. As a person with keen interest in reading about companies, mergers & acquisitions, start-ups, etc., its a real good addition to my library.

Now slowly I am moving towards slightly different set of books and to begin with, just started reading Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Came across this book after reading a post by gibberer 🙂 and then also there was a mention about this book in viral loop. I now have a long list of books to read of which some are related to history as well.

Digressing from the topic, I had my first bad experience with macbook pro yesterday 🙁 . I had to do a hard shutdown after it stopped responding 🙁 . Never expected that I would get to see this on my mac so soon……was just watching a movie in vlc and nothing else was running but somehow it decided to freeze. Actually whenever I  run vlc, I see some issue with the video being not clear sometimes or getting stuck for few seconds. Will observe it for few more days and see what could be going wrong…could be an issue with the vlc player for mac as well and not an actual issue with mac itself 🙂 …..yes I do love apple products 😀 .

13 Tzameti

Downloaded this french movie few days back after I came across one of my friend’s facebook status about the movie. Watched it yesterday and it immediately reminded me of Russian Roulette. Strange coincidence I guess, I just started my second attempt at reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and the author mentions about Russian Roulette in the first or second chapters. And here I am watching a movie based on a modified version of Russian Roulette.

Basically, the movie is about a lethal game with all the participants standing in a circle with a revolver each. In the first round, each one loads a single bullet and shoots at the next person. After this round, the game proceeds with two bullets in the barrel with whoever was not dead in the first round. It goes on until there is a duel and here 3 rounds are put in the barrel and each one aims at the other. Finally, one man comes out as the winner (provided at least one person is left). And in the background, there would be people betting hundreds of thousands on each of the players.

Was a really good movie though the outcome of the game could anyway be predicted. But the way the movie ended was good. Had it been a typical Bollywood movie, I am sure what would happen at the end 😀 .Though it was a 2005 movie, it was all in black & white and also this was the first black & white movie in which I saw cell phones being used (of course it was taken in 2005 🙂 ).

The Alchemist

I had a list of books that I always wanted to read and The Alchemist was one of them. But somehow never got a chance and today read this book and now I feel like I learnt a lot or rather I knew all those but needed something/someone to help me re-discover and here it was in the form of this book.

It was such a simple story yet reveals the facts of life. One thing that I would always remember is to never give up and keep trying to realize our dreams no matter whatever comes in the way. Like in the case of Santiago, though during his journey to realize his dream he could have settled with what he achieved, he never gives up his quest to realize his actual dream. He could have gone back from the crystal shop with all his savings and settled as a shepherd with more sheep or he could have settled in the oasis as a counsellor and lived with Fatima for ever. But he never got distracted from his ultimate dream of going to the Pyramids inspite of all the hurdles and the riches he made during his journey.

There were a few points made in the story that hit the nail straight on the head and will never forget them.  Most favourite one was “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it“. And then the story that the king tells Santiago about the boy and the wise man. The boy was given a spoon with few drops of oil and then the wise man asks him to have a look at his castle. But the boy was so engrossed in taking care of not to spill the oil that he could barely look at the castle. And when he was told the second time to have a look at the beautiful castle, he comes back with all the entire oil spilled. That’s when the wise man advices the boy – “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon“. And then what the Englishman says to Santiago – “It was the fear of failure that kept him from attempting the Master work for 10 years and he is happy that at least he didn’t wait for 20 years”. And finally what the Alchemist tells Santiago – “You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his destiny. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t true love……the love that speaks the Language of the World”.

In fact there are many more such instances that have appealed to me but of course cannot write them all here. In short its a very good read and yeah that’s the reason its transalted into 67 languages winning the Guiness World Record and sold more than 65 million copies in more than 150 countries (Source: Wikipedia).

And digressing from alchemist now, thanks to my Asus router, I have started watching IMDB top 250 movies and hope to complete most of them soon 😀 .