Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.

Mother Pious Lady

Link: You can vote for this review now appearing on Amazon-US here, or on Amazon-UK here.

Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.

Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.

The Checklist Manifesto

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here.

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right comes close on the heels of Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. Both books are about lists and both emphasise the ability of lists to bring about order and control. Both books attracted me because I am a consummate list-maker. More “practical” than “poetic”, a taxonomical distinction that Eco proposes in his book, I write my lists in blue, striking out the “done” items in red, thus also making it a motivational tool. It is therefore safe to say that the title of Gawande’s book was immediately attractive.

Despite my prejudicial preference for lists and reading about lists, it is a credit to the engaging quality of Atul Gawande’s writing that the book kept me absorbed for the 3 hours it took to read all 193 pages of it.

The author proposes “checklists” as a functional tool to deal with the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of making mistakes in the face of complex problems. Using stories from construction management, airline piloting and disaster management, and surgery, he shows how checklists can be used to break down complex tasks into simpler steps, thus helping prevent expensive mistakes. The author delves further into two kinds of lists (Do-Confirm or Read-Do) using a story from how the airline manufacturing industry writes their “user manuals”.

Early on, he points out that checklists are not some silver bullet, and that there is judgement involved. Some situations may benefit from checklists, while others may not need any. Later in the book, he also admits that to many, lists are protocols and embody rigidity. He then proceeds to illustrate why this needn’t be so and to demonstrate the importance of team work and how checklists enable that discipline, especially in disasters.

I found Chapters 7 and 8 most interesting. The stories told so far describe the complexity of the work/ task itself but these two chapters introduce another layer, that of institutional complexity.

Chapter 7 details the WHO sponsored study to examine if checklists made any difference to safety, infections, post-surgery deaths in 8 quite disparate hospitals around the world. The settings varied from a hospital in Tanzania where 4 surgeons, aided by 5 untrained anaesthesia staff, work on thousands of surgeries; to one in New Zealand that has 92 anaesthetists for some 20,000 surgeries per year, a number also dealt with in an Indian hospital using just 7 anaesthetists. The settings were also culturally diverse adding a layer of complexity not foreseen in the design of the checklist. For instance, the author mentions a different kind of English being spoken in an English NHS hospital, and observes the interplay of gender segregation and professional responsibility in a Jordanian surgery theatre. The results – from using the checklist – regarding reduction in technical problems, complications, infections and deaths were encouraging, for all cultural settings and even allowing for the Hawthorne Effect.

In Chapter 8, much mainstream media coverage of Jan 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson River” is debunked while the author tells the story of the pilots Sullenberger and Stiles and their calm use of appropriate procedures, while their cabin crew prepared passengers for and then monitored safe evacuation, to strengthen his thesis. The other half of Chapter 8 particularly resonated with me because I work with investors and entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the 3 investors who have incorporated checklists into their investment decisions, favouring dispassionate analysis over irrational exuberance, so to speak.

The title is deceptively simple for this is a profound book, written accessibly and clearly. It is a defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems, to creating team work and collegiality amongst narrow specialists while ensuring desirable outcomes, no matter what the setting.

Managers, entrepreneurs, investors as well as professional project managers such as event planners would do well to read, ponder, internalise and practise the idea proposed in the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The varied examples from learned professions such as surgery, airline piloting, construction management and investing should make the book broadly readable.


The Tiger That Isn’t, or why you needn’t be afraid of numbers

Link: You can vote on the Amazon review of this book here.

“I think numbers are the best way to represent the world’s uncertainties”, “I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate”, “I see numbers and I freeze”.

These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise – and the promise – of The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book “Know the Unknowns”) and Causation. While most of the examples are British – understandably because both authors are British – it is not difficult for the reader to apply the ‘lessons’ to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless.

So here is a possibility.  If some numbers in the news have been bothering you, do leave a comment and I shall try and explain them in a manner consistent with that suggested by Blastland and Dilnot. It is however worth every one of the 90 or so minutes you will spend on the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.

Games Indians Play

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

W. H. Auden said “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” As a consummate buyer, reader and possessor of books, I will extend that to say that some books can be remembered for being egregiously bad. My abnormal love for books means that I try to give the author a lot of rope, benefit of doubt or whatever you want to call my generosity of spirit. I have found it hard to find that generosity in me for this book which I review below.

Thanks to my lovely sibling in India, I received a copy of ‘Games Indians Play’ by V Raghunathan. I daresay that having first heard about it on a blog, I had indeed asked for it to be sent to me. Would you not have done so if you were curious about Indians and someone had tempted you by offering a game theoretical explanation of at least some of the mysteries?

Having read the 150+ page book in some 3 hours, I am now considering refunding my sibling the price of the book and apologising for the hassle in procuring it, then travelling to my cousin’s house to deliver it so it could be carried to London.

The root of the fundamental flaw in this book is explained by the author under ‘Some Disclaimers’ in Chapter 1. He acknowledges that the book is not aimed at any specific group of readers in particular, a targeting problem that may still not explain the non-uniform, almost amateurish, style of writing. In many places, the arguments are so stretched that they become rants and successfully forcing me to make a cup of tea to stay awake and interested; in other places, the language is a stretch for non-Indian readers, settle as it does into Indian style of usage.

The disclaimers also say it is not a research based book, but I think it is bordering on intellectual laziness when the author often mentions in the passing his own experiments, without clarifying how these were conducted and if the outcomes could be verified at all. One is left to guess that many of these experiments were conducted on his MBA students both at IIM-Ahmedabad (my business school) and SDA Bocconi. Either way, MBA students are hardly representative of the population and if you believe the negative press about MBAs, probably too focused on money making.

Another disclaimer says this is not a text book on game theory or behavioural economics but the contents say otherwise. There is much more theoretical discussion rather than ‘applied’ explanations of what the author set out to do according to the cover – explain ‘why we are the way we are’.

One disclaimer, where the author’s academic affiliation shows,says that the book’s conclusions are at worst conjectural and at best plausible hypotheses for further research. Having read it, I shall settle for the former.

The author lays a grand claim upfront that he has a 12-canon taxonomy for ‘Indianness’ – if you are an Indian, a class of people which the author says are “probably the most intelligent people in the world”, you will more than gasp at the laundry list of ills which make us look like members of some crazed despot’s army rather than citizens of a large developing nation and democracy:

  1. low trustworthiness
  2. being privately smart and publicly dumb
  3. fatalist outlook
  4. being too intelligent for our own good
  5. abysmal sense of public hygiene
  6. lack of self-regulation and sense of fairness
  7. reluctance to penalise wrong conduct in others
  8. mistaking talk for action
  9. deep-rooted corruption and a flair for free-riding
  10. inability to follow or implement systems
  11. a sense of self-worth that is massaged only if we have the ‘authority’ to break rules
  12. propensity to look for loop holes in laws

Those, who know me or read my writing on issues concerning India, probably know that my cognition sometimes impedes my ability to feel undiluted devotion for any person or entity. Far be it from me for being jingoistic about India (or about Britain, where I live) but I find these broad generalisations smacking of desperate attempts of the kind ‘Oh I have started all this so I better finish’.

Leaving that thought aside, let’s look at the book.

Chapter 2 claims that somehow an illiterate vendor who can do mental maths suggests Indians are amongst the most intelligent in the world. A logical leap at best, especially when efforts are made immediately to establish this as some kind of sacrosanct truth by comparing with systems-oriented jobsworths (a later chapter addresses why Indians do not follow systems) working in retail outside India. He then extends the argument meandering through stranger examples to say Indians are seemingly more rational and intelligent than those in Western societies, but our individual utilities do not maximise our collective utility.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Prisoner’s dilemma and the main message is the Indian inability to focus on the long-term (NPV if you are into MBA-speak) for fear of losing short-term gains. The argument is extended to explain why Indians do not champion issues citing the lament that one person’s efforts will make no difference.

Chapter 4 on iterative prisoner’s dilemma is more theoretical and focuses on explaining Axelrod’s experiments.

Chapter 5 asks if competition can lead to collaboration and many more examples are discussed. The chapter ends with suggesting how being simple, nice, forgiving and self-righteously provokable gets us ahead further. Hmm, okay!

At 30 pages, chapter 6 is the longest and asks questions about fairness, self-regulation, willingness to confront wrong behaviour in others, and incipient flouting of rules, abuse of office or authority and ironically, for a long-winded chapter, a section on long-winded arguments. It is however also the chapter that uses most stories and illustrations to advance the original aim of the book – using tools of behavioural economics to explain some Indian behaviours.

Chapter 7 is about free riding and asks if Indians are the world’s biggest free-riders. In fewer than a full 10 pages, the author discusses greed, fear and corruption as variations on free-riding. This chapter could have been longer to expand on some of the better ideas in the book. As the book progresses, the early awkwardness disappears, although not totally as it does rear its head in places.

Chapter 8 on systemic chaos, or Indians’ inability to follow systems without bending any rules is actually a compendium of various stories of corruption, bending of rules etc with air travel being a major theme and cricket, academia and private sector tussling with the government being minor stories. Not much game theory in this chapter and I could not help but notice that fewer than 10% of the Indian population uses airplanes to travel. To use a large number of cases from a minority population to generalise to a whole billion? Not ok I think, even for popular reading type books.

Chapter 9 resolves a poser from earlier in the book. Nothing upsets me more in print than avoidable errors in spelling. Repeatedly misspelling ‘Shrodinger’ in the text, when the reference in the appendix is spelt properly, is nothing but editorial laziness in my view.

Chapter 10 on Bhagwadgita is probably the most interesting but since the author says he is sharing his personal ‘awakening’ to the message of the book, I shall leave it to you to make your own mind up. Even if the book were meant for no specific reader group in particular, mixing religion and spirituality with a book purporting to be about game theory to me is just reinforcing the stereotype of Indians as beings of great spirituality.

Not enough game theory, not enough behavioural economics, not much by way of explanation either. In other words, a mistake to judge the book by its cover, the preceding hype, the fawning reviews and even the benefit of doubt given to the author, who did teach some of my best friends (but not me, me no finance major, me marketing type).

Star rating: 2 out of 5 (also 9 out of 10 marks for being the first book to have disappointed me so thoroughly)