A Good Time To Be A Girl

I read A Good Time To Be A Girl on Easter Sunday 2018, an appropriate thematic read. That is 246 pages of writing excluding 18 pages of references etc. It is an easy read and Ms Helena Morrissey deserves credit especially for being honest about the warts and difficulties she overcame with the support of her partner and her mentors, and with her own inner strength.

This is a book about an idea whose time has come, the idea that the prevailing patriarchal system hurts women and men, and it is time to change it. In that sense this is not your Lean-In manual of 2018 but something that exhorts you to think and act altogether differently.

Helena Morrissey is uniquely positioned to have written the book. At 35, she was made the CEO at Newton Asset Management, in an industry where women fund managers are still a low double digit number. Stewart Newton was her mentor. She has given birth to nine — and by all accounts, stellar (they are mentioned in the book with their views in relevant places; one of her daughters won a prize for Sanskrit, which is how she and I first started interacting on Twitter) — children. Her children of both genders provide an interesting personal crucible in which she has been able to observe how gendered views are formed.

In 1999, when the idea was mostly unheard of, her husband Richard became a stay-at-home dad but more crucially, as it comes through in the book, remained a strong partner to her. Ms Morrissey is the founder of the 30% Club which now has chapters in 10 countries, at the time of writing this review. She has also undertaken several organisation wide researches on gender disparity. She is currently the head of personal investing at Legal & General.

Ms Morrissey argues — rightly in my view as I wrote in this Quora answer several years ago — that the patriarchal system in today’s workplaces hurts women as well as men.

Using her own experiences as well as research, citations to which are listed towards the end of the book, she has made a strong case for changing the workplace and our idea of work.

Chapter 6 is a valuable read for CEOs, and if as a CEO you read only one thing in this book, read this chapter. Ms Morrissey addresses right away the resentment of the majority who see D&I initiatives as an exercise in political correctness, and who are anxious about positive discrimination. She mentions the ineffectiveness of unconscious bias training, a tool that has gained currency — which I agreed with and have written about in Inc. She rightly points out that the past, well-meaning approaches aren’t effective any more, and citing Iris Bohnet, she makes the case for changing mindsets and work environments, and hence the need for CEOs to being a whole new strategic lens to it, starting first with a look in the mirror about their commitment to building a truly diverse organisation. Andy Haldane’s recruitment challenge that Ms Morrissey mentions is thought provoking. Since reading the book I have tested it on several corporate bigwig friends and watched their puzzlement and then delight at recognising its value. The chapter goes on to discuss mentoring, tutorials and giving innovative thinkers the stage, concluding with a practicable checklist for CEOs.

Chapter 7 is written especially for young girls and boys and is very good in my view. Like me, you may want to share it with the teenagers and youngsters you know too.

Ms Morrissey discusses in the book that cultivating one’s own network is more valuable than relying on recruiters and headhunters, something I would endorse from personal experience.

Ms Morrissey, for all her superior achievements, is still represented poorly by some of the UK’s “newspapers”. “Billion dollar babe” was one such early reference, whereas when she was made Dame, “mother of nine media favourite” was how she was described. This sort of stuff can do a lot of damage. In Chapter 9, Ms Morrissey’s daughter talks about “acting like women” which summarises the challenge of narrowly defined ideas of femininity (and masculinity), and many leadership qualities hitherto aligned with masculinity. She recommends several ways to drive change there e.g. not using the word Diversity, and also discarding use of other loaded words such as “flexible working” in favour of “agile working”.

There were however a few points where I was a little disappointed in the book. The idea of intersectional disadvantages faced by many women and men is discussed briefly but quite underdeveloped. Related to that, I found the discussion on Islamic extremism oddly overdeveloped.

Further, the main focus of women’s career challenges is framed as their role of care giver either to children or to elderly relatives. There has been no attention to the experience of women immigrants, especially women of colour, even when it is a widely known fact the trailing spouses are overwhelmingly women. In my view, the scope of this book and its impact is global not just limited to the UK, where generous visa laws allow spouses to work (who may face other challenges including racism hence my earlier comment re intersectionality). This gap was notable in my view.

I know dozens of women, whose careers were thwarted by overt and covert -isms in London – and elsewhere – at the same time as Ms Morrissey became CEO at Newton Asset Management. The American H4 visa is restrictive to say the least, while American women especially women of colour have experienced the rough end of “processes” for “aliens” in many European countries. One friend of mine, with a double doctorate and a Harvard Master’s had to prove to the Swiss authorities her doctorate was equal to a Swiss Master’s, for instance. Many such women are often forced to become independent consultants and entrepreneurs. Many I know have now been outside the corporate mainstream for almost two decades. They bring rich experience and value to boards but because they do not work for BigCo, a well-meaning organisation such as the 30% Club does not allow them membership or support. This is not a small number of people as evident from the burgeoning ranks of potential apprentices in the Board Apprentice Programme*, which now also has a joint offering with the 30% Club. The scope of the change we need is societal and wholesale, not just in BigCo.

In Chapter 10, however, the proposed Women’s Progress Pyramid goes some way to addressing that by proposing a vision that addresses some of these challenges.

Notwithstanding the limitations as perceived by me, I have already recommended the book to my 40yo sister who is a mid-senior level executive in a multinational, my 23yo niece just 2.5y into her career, and a friend-of-over-30-years who is a founder-CEO and a dad to a really smart 10yo daughter. The book has wide appeal to all those who are thinking about their own careers, their workplaces, their relationships, and their contribution to shaping the world around them through their choices and their advocacy.

It’s a good time to be a girl. And a good time to be a boy.

Because the tide of change in our workplaces and our society may finally allow girls and boys and non-binary persons to express their full humanity, without their potential being thwarted.

It still needs us all to work. If you are short on ideas, this book is for you.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 

Usefulness note: Everyone who works in any capacity, inside or outside the home, in a small or big company, male or female or non-binary, would benefit from the approach proposed in the book.

*The Board Apprentice programme surfaced me to the board of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust (LSE: JUSC) where I am now a non-executive director. Needless to say it took a combination of a woke BigCo and an exceptional chairwoman to make it possible. The programme bridges the gap between BigCo and the tribe of accidental entrepreneurs and other unusual talented people, but it needs more host boards to change their minds on the issue of inclusion.

Everybody Lies

It took me about 5 hours on Christmas eve to read the whole of Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell As About Who We Really Are, including Acknowledgments (that is 284 pages out of 338 in the hardback edition). This is worth a mention. In his conclusion, the author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz says he knows very few of us, who started the book, are still reading. Data gleaned from Kindle readers by Amazon says fewer than 7% of those who started reading Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, a full 499 pages in its hardback edition, actually finished it. Fewer than 3% finished the much-lauded Thomas Piketty book Capital In the 21st Century, which is 704 pages long. Now there is a surprise. We do not need Big Data to tell us that these books were abandoned by vast numbers of those who started reading them. Even those who are unfamiliar with Umberto Eco’s antilibrary effectively maintain one. Books are regularly abandoned, left unread, even unopened. But when they are on your Kindle, Amazon gets to see how much you read of them.

Big Data, as seen in Google searches (and some other online sources), is the digital truth serum, Seth S-D writes. We go online to bare our souls about parents, children, significant others, our bodies, our fears etc, to find answers to dilemmas, personal quandaries, weird curiosities and awkward sense of humour, without fear of losing social approval or our coolness quotient. That idea is the crux of this book.

The other key insights — or powers of Big Data — Seth S-D demonstrates are: everything is data, that Big Data can enable us to zoom in meaningfully into smaller datasets to gain new insights, and that Big Data allows us randomised experiments at scale to find true causal effects in phenomena and observations such as how do our preferences and opinions form.

Big Data for all its potential misuses — Minority Report gets a namecheck — has its uses in helping us feel less alone in our quest and our weirdness. That list of drop down options to complete our search from the Google home page subtly tells us about those others like us, as well as those who started a query the same way but were seeking something else.

Towards the end, chapter 7 of 8, the author contends with limitations of Big Data: the curse of dimensionality (essentially a cognitive limitation), the risk of forgetting the meaning we were seeking through it, the risk of missing what cannot be measured, and the fixation with what can be measured aka the importance of perspective.

The book is quite readable, weaving stories on sex, politics, baseball and other common human pursuits, and often funny. The author’s granny, brother and family find a mention. There are 30 pages of references — Notes — which are oddly not cross-referenced in the main text. The book is also a tad too long, especially the Conclusion. I also have a few other nerdy nitpicks. For instance, in opening with the limits of intuition, Malcolm Gladwell is name-checked but not Gerd Gigerenzer whose work Gladwell paraphrased. Why the nitpick? Because Gigerenzer has made the point about how intuition or gut feel is a sum total of all the “data” we have garnered through life experience, compressed into a heuristic that we draw upon in System 1 thinking (that Kahneman mentions in his largely-left-unread tome). It would have been a neat segue into the author’s messages “everything is data” and the rest of the limitations. But as I said it is a nerdy nitpick.

And one last thing. I bought the Kindle edition of the book first. It was just over $2. About 8% in, I bought the physical book because unsurprisingly, I read faster on paper and retain more, and my eyes do not get tired. Amazon data gleaning may suggest I abandoned the Kindle book. Unless it correlates that abandonment with the data point that I also bought the hardback from another Amazon store (making it easier for them to track me instead of going to the physical store where I buy most of my physical books), and that this review is appearing on this blog.

Everything is data. Big Data however is not everything.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 

Usefulness note: The book will interest all those who enjoyed Freakonomics, More Sex Is Safer Sex, and similar books.

The Myth Gap

A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.

I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.

The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:

“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”

These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.

In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.

Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.

Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।

धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥

This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”

The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.

Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.

The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.

While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.

On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.

Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, is  Housum Professor of History at Yale University. At the simplest, this timely book draws parallels between the Trump administration and the Third Reich.

In the prologue, Snyder reminds us that history does not repeat but that it does instruct, that it can familiarise and it can warn. He mentions that the western tradition considers history when the political order seems in peril, and that European history shows that democracies can fall and ethics can collapse. He reminds us how fascism and communism both were responses to globalisation, and why recent developments are a good reminder for us that we are not any wiser now than people were back then.

Eschewing moral panic, Snyder has managed to write a book that is deceptively simple in stating the profound lessons from twentieth century history, which are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

As I read through the book, its broader applicability to some other well-known democracies, not just the USA, became clearer. As a person of Indian origin, I have watched the current administration campaign its way to power, where with a weak opposition, the world’s largest democracy is, at the moment, a de facto single party state. Language has been corrupted with terms such as anti-national, “libtard”, “sickular” (“sick” and “secular” twisted together) are bandied about with ease to attack those, who raise legitimate concerns about the changing face of India. These mass attacks are often technology-enabled and bot-led, so difficult to counter. Further, I live in the UK and had watched with increasing concern the Brexit campaign infested with lies. The legacy of that campaign persisted after the win, labelling upset remain-voters “remoaners”, attacked with glib comments such as “your side lost, get over it!”. Having become PM as a side outcome of the Brexit vote, Mrs May also eagerly abused language, labelling globalists “citizens of nowhere” and mouthing meaningless tautologies, such as “Brexit is Brexit”. As I write this review on the weekend of 17/18 June 2017, she is seeing plenty of corporeal politics in the form of protests at Downing Street asking her to resign.

Point no 14 — establish a private life — made me a tad uncomfortable. The way I read it, I interpret Snyder’s point to mean “don’t have anything over which you can be held to ransom”. This is a tricky endeavour. After all nearly all of us have near and dear ones, and can be forced into uncomfortable situations because of them. I was also reminded of the time when I was a graduate student of management. We had a guest speaker, TN Seshan, who is known to have been one of the most incorruptible and straight shooting Election Commissioners India has had. After nearly 25 years, one of his remarks sticks in my memory. He said not having children liberated him to live fully and fearlessly to his ideals. It is hard to have a life without a chink in the armour that a tyrannical despot and his or her minions would not be able to exploit.

One point that Snyder does not make — and perhaps it is not important enough — is that “leaders” emerging through such shenanigans remain insecure and sore winners, with easily hurt and fragile egos. This means that these leaders rarely submit themselves to public engagement or criticism, preferring either to become sound byte dispensing bots such as Mrs May or to continue attacks real or imagined adversaries as Mr Trump does on Twitter. May be that was not a lesson in history. But it is a pertinent characteristic that can be useful.

I feel the list of lessons in the book also provides an interesting framework with which to examine technological monopolies such as Facebook and Google, and the influence they may have on shaping the political discourse, about which plenty has been written since the last Presidential elections in the USA.

In the epilogue to this excellent book, titled “History And Liberty”, Snyder warns us to watch for the politics of inevitability i.e. the idea that history could only move in one direction — towards liberal democracies, and the politics of eternity, which glorifies the past with scant regard for facts. Recent developments in the USA — and I add India and the UK — give weight to his argument that this belief in the politics of inevitability is a self-induced form of intellectual coma, which stifles debate and discussion. On the other hand, the politics of eternity has fostered nationalist politicians who sell the seductive vision of a past that never existed and prevent us from thinking about possible futures and ways to self-correct.

I read the book in one sitting, with a single cafetière of coffee by my side. It is a riveting read, which is not something one could normally say about books on history and politics.

In a subsequent conversation with a journalist friend, we agreed that these points ought to be on a poster of some kind, and everyone needs to have it up where it can be seen daily.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: This book ought to be read in full. By everyone. Especially in the current political climate. Why? Because, to quote Marshall Berman, American Marxist humanist philosopher, “Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.” 

How Women Decide

How Women Decide, by Therese Huston, is provocatively titled and an easy read, backed by substantial research, listed in the 53 page of references.

The book has six chapters each dealing with themes that surface when women’s decision-making is discussed, namely women’s intuition, decisiveness, attitudes to risk, confidence, decisions under stress, and unusually, watching others make poor decisions. Each chapter has a summary of take-aways at the end which is handy. Huston tells stories often from the public domain to make her points. She also patiently untangles science from socialisation while making her argument.

If I had to recommend one chapter, I would be hard-pressed to pick between “Hello, risk taker” and “Stress makes her focused, not fragile”. Biases regarding their risk taking behaviour and their ability to cope under stress follow women around. Yet as Huston demonstrates in the chapter on the former, risk-taking is not a personality trait, but a skill which can be learnt although men take more risks during the process of learning than women do. The differences in risk taking disappear later with experience. She also shows that women actually takes more risks e.g. speaking up in hostile environments where they are in the minority than men do. She specifically points out the challenges of precarious manhood and the “white male effect” on how something may appear risk free to a white male but not to many others. In the chapter on stress, she demonstrates how women and men behave differently under stress vis-a-vis the risks they take, and their approaches i.e. fight-or-flight in men and tend-and-befriend in women. She also highlights how social judgment is harsher on women than on men in stressed situations and how the genders express emotion in socially sanctioned ways.

The chapter on watching others make poor decisions had personal appeal for me. I am simply unable to watch a poor decision being made, and it can often cause friction with friends and family.

If I could make it compulsory for senior executives, board directors and people managers to read this book, I would. Of course, the most open-minded would benefit the most and in turn their organisations would too.

Like many non-fiction books, this book too could be shorter by a quarter without losing substance. But it is an easy read so the length does not weigh down on the reader.

Extra kudos to the author, for acknowledging that her husband’s willingness to cover the family’s financial needs for several years gave her the chance to try her luck as a full-time writer! As Ann Bauer wrote a few years ago, this is the sponsorship that doesn’t get discussed honestly or openly, as much as it should be. Not all writers have wealthy philanthropist patrons. Sometimes the truth for creative people is that their own family is giving up a lot to support their dreams and for being honest about that Ms Huston deserves a gold star.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 (could have been a shorter book!)

Usefulness note: I would nudge those, who manage people or otherwise work with people to read this book. It is not a dry read and gently challenges unconscious biases held against one half of humanity.

Small Data

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends attracted my attention for several reasons. One, I am interested in understanding the world better, so other people’s ways of seeing, ways of making sense of things interest me. Two, I read anything that can be vaguely filed under “decision making”. Three, that the title appears to rail provocatively against the tide of “big data” drowning us these days.

Martin Lindstrom, the author, is a Danish consultant to brands. As a 12-year old he was once confined to hospital where, to entertain himself, he started keenly observing others in his ward and the various nurses and doctors who came to visit, and making hypotheses and testing them. As a keen Lego maker as a child, he notes in passing an encounter with Lego’s lawyers and then how later he was able to help the brand remain on course even as the company feared it was losing its market as kids became more engrossed in online games and communities.

The book is full of stories from Lindstrom’s assignments for various brands in many different countries. His insight often benefits from his outsider status in the cultures he studies whether as a middle-aged man observing teenage girls’ fashion behaviours, or as a Danish man trying to disentangle the Indian Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law dynamic in joint families. He also shares a story of when he had to go off Pepsi in his personal life to become a more-or-less dispassionate observer in order to help the brand.

In telling his stories, Lindstrom goes off on tangents sometimes, but also links back to experiences described in other chapters. This quirk has personal appeal for me because in conversations, I am quite prone to telling side stories and going off on tangents to enrich a thread but unlike many others, I also have the ability to always come back to the main narrative.

In the last chapter, Lindstrom shares his 7Cs framework of observing and making sense of small data. That framework, alas, is the weakest link in this book. I can see why it might have been compelling to abstract his “magic” into a framework others could use. But when I put my business person and sometime teacher and trainer hat on, I know that people missing the obvious and not being keen observers is quite common. That ability to observe aside, being able to link things, and to reject or persist with various hypotheses is Lindstrom’s real USP. The framework would go nowhere with those whose ability to see is not as keen as the author’s.

The references and the index are helpful but if you seek academic research type references, this is not a book for you. Read it definitely but read a lot more besides.

The stories are good and amusingly regaled, even if sometimes correlation-causation-explanation-inquiry get muddled, and some hypotheses or conclusions seem a bit too far fetched. As a way of seeing and explaining the world, the book would easily nudge “big data” obsessed business decision makers into questioning and reflecting.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A good light read, which I would heartily recommend, but not for those seeking robust academic style frameworks and concepts.

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.

Honest Signals

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This book belongs – very, very broadly – with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudges. These books present an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision-making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not so the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based “honest signalling”, which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted in the book are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a “sociometer” which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes four kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. The last three chapters describe how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Chapters 1 focuses on four kinds of signals which are expensive to fake: influence (which signals control or attention), mimicry (empathy/ trust), activity (interest) and consistency or variability (where the former signals a focused mind and the latter signals an openness to input from others). In this review, letters I, M, A, C/V refer to these signals.

Chapter 2 describes how people use combinations of signals to indicate the social role they are taking, such as exploring (I, A), listening (A, C/ V), teaching (I, M, C) and leading (I, A, C).

I found Chapter 3 fascinating. The author describes how mirror neurons read signals and help develop or construct meaning such as dominance, deception etc. Social circuits formed through exchange of signals in a group situation may explain situations such as mood contagion. The discussion then moves on to charisma, which is an innate talent at reading and responding to social signalling. Signals also change people in an instance of what the author calls “self-inflicted brainwashing”. In group situations, signals, responses to signals and the resultant shifting coalitions are better predictors of outcomes, the author argues, than strategy, motivation, experience or personal characteristics.

Further detail on social roles – task roles (orienteer, giver, seeker, follower) and group roles (attacker, protagonist, supporter, neutral) – are discussed next. A manager or team leader would probably know from experience that 1 30-second slice of a group’s interaction is a reliable indicator of the various group and task roles at work, and that social roles can spread within a group. In an organisational context, such group dynamics can contribute to organisational intelligence.

It is harder to précis the last three chapters which are dense with ideas that could have benefited from a longer discussion. Perhaps future writings will do greater justice to the application aspects of this fascinating research.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

A main limitation of the book is the compact treatment of a fairly vast and promising subject. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories often feel incomplete, half-told, rushed. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn’t face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland’s research with it.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to “implement” the framework, it is hardly “honest” signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

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.