Book Review — Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man That Invented the 20th Century

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Cross-posted from Goodreads

This was probably the shortest book I’ve ever read, less than 50 pages.

The book is equally about the importance of imagination as it is about Tesla and his discoveries. I wanted to read this book primarily to learn more about Tesla. I had heard a lot of people rave about him and how underappreciated he was. In fact, I got a glimpse of this in the movie ‘The Prestige’ where Tesla (and his ‘magical’ machines) makes a cameo along with hints about his dispute with Edison.

The book starts with the author presenting their views about the criteria for success. A lot of the ideas seem inspired by thoughts expressed in earlier works such as Outliers: The Story of Success. It didn’t hurt to revisit these motivating thoughts. You’ll find my favorite quotes marked here:

Anyway, as I said earlier, my motive was to learn more about Tesla. The book chronicles his early life, successes, failures, and disputes in a way that covers all major events. But some of these events, especially the ‘mystical’ ones are glossed over without many details. I think there was an opportunity to cover at least the major events in more detail. A 100-150 page book would still be a quick read.


Book Review — The Book Thief

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Cross-posted from Goodreads

“And when Death tells a story, you really have to listen,” announced the backcover when I picked up the book. At first, the book’s theme sounded morbid and grim. What it actually turned out to be was an (almost) warm story of a young german girl trapped in—what appears to her still-evolving sense of the world as—weird and unintuitive ways of a warring Nazi Germany. It’s her love of books (and words) that lays the foundation of the story. Without using dramatic effects, the author does a great job of underlining the sheer power of words in making and breaking the world around us.

Of course, there’s a lot of death and suffering involved. But when narrated by Death in a matter-of-factly voice, the story doesn’t sound poignant at all. Instead, the narration style makes it easy for a reader to pick up the joys and miseries of everyday life in a warring nation-state driven by a megalomaniac of a narcissist who is a death-giver (to Jews) and death-inviter (to the rest of Germany).

The plight of Jews is brilliantly highlighted in stark details, without the need to go too deep into the horrors of concentration camps. What’s even more brilliantly described is the attitudes of regular German citizens during those testing times. In the end, friendship trumps race in a dazzling display of warm and complex human emotions.

In some ways, I was frequently reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. I could see parallels between the two books in terms of the protagonist being a young girl, the depiction of an idyllic lifestyle, and nonconformist views against racism.

Markus Zusak uses simple words and a creative narration to describe a painful setting. I especially liked his use of callout annotations throughout the book.

This book was recommended to me by a dear old friend, Aman Mehra.

Book Review — The Pragmatic Programmer

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Cross-posted from Goodreads

The Pragmatic Programmer is a structured collection of tips and practical advice for programmers looking to get better at their craft. In it, I found answers to many of my own doubts and dilemmas that I’ve experienced as a programmer for over a decade: questions of whether a particular approach or design is the right way, an overkill, or half-baked.

This one’s another seminal book on programming—like Clean Code—that I should’ve read years ago. Or maybe not: the first edition was written in 1999, where a lot of the technology and code samples discussed have become obsolete today. The second edition (2019) is a modern rewrite and what I picked up. While all code samples, as well as recommended languages, frameworks, libraries, and tools, have been revised the core concepts about being a ‘pragmatic’ programmer were true in 1999 and remain true 20 years later.

The gist of being a pragmatic programmer is that you deeply care about the quality of your software, write your code as a master craftsperson, and always keep your users at the forefront, but at the same time you also respect time commitments and know to stay away from the overengineering trap.

Although a lot of advice will feel ordinary to folks who’ve been programming for a few years, there are plenty of rock-solid gold nuggets of wisdom that will make reading the book worthwhile. Besides, the concepts that we know now and take for granted—like DRY and orthogonality—were literally born in this book (in 1999!).

Book Review — Coming into the Country

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Cross-posted from Goodreads

It’s said that Coming into the Country is one of the finest books on Alaska and wilderness ever written. That may be true, but I wouldn’t know as this is the only book on wilderness I’ve read. I picked up this book from The Tim Ferriss Show podcast episode with David Heinemeier Hansson.

At the outset, one likes the literary style used by McPhee to describe complex sceneries and wildlife. The detailing is so vivid that one wonders if the author was taking notes every minute of his stay in Alaska. Perhaps there’s an element of fiction in this nonfiction work, one continues to ponder. The fact that McPhee is considered a pioneer in creative nonfiction writing probably solves this puzzle. I discovered this fact after finishing the book. As an aspiring writer, there is much to learn from McPhee’s mastery of describing everyday objects and extraordinary stories with the same panache that makes them sound entertaining.

The book is divided into three parts — expeditions in the wilderness (around the Brooks mountain range), life & politics in towns and cities (Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage), and stories of settlers in the wild (in and around Eagle and the Yukon river). Each part approaches Alaska with a different theme, tonality, and sentiment.

I was amazed to discover in part 1 that Alaska is not all that white all through the year. In part 2, it was enlightening to know the differences in the attitudes of villagers and townsfolk, and the power struggle ensuing from statehood and the construction of Trans-Alaska pipeline.

I had mixed feelings about part 3 where McPhee tells the stories of people with roots in the “lower forty-eight states” who have adopted Alaska (come into the country) as their new home, and of the indigenous people, their modernization, and attitude toward the government. A handful stories of capitalistic Alaskans provides some contrast, but the last part of the book is mostly dominated by isolation-loving folks who wanted to live a life of self-sufficiency away from civilization. Trappers, hunters, fur traders, nomads, Indians… you’ll find them all in there. To be honest, I enjoyed the initial few stories but after a while, the narrative became repetitive and redundant. It made me a bit impatient, wanting to finish the rest of the book ASAP. I even skipped a few pages, something I never do.

All in all, it’s a good book to learn about a very different part of Earth — its climate, wildlife, culture, habits of people, civilization, etc. I had never read such a book before, so it took me more will and effort to read it till the end. Maybe people with excellent reading skills will cruise through this one much better than I did.

Book Review — The Psychology of Money

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Cross-posted from Goodreads

The book presents a collection of simple and neat ideas around how to think about managing your money. Notice my emphasis on “how to think about managing” rather than “how to manage.” I guess the title itself makes it abundantly clear that rather than discussing “proven” formulae for increasing your wealth it will talk about the psychological or emotional part of wealth management.

It’s much like how the book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It discusses the various tactics of negotiating in the light of human behavior and emotions. So, rather than giving you step-by-step techniques to increase money, it tries to convince you to change your mindset and lifestyle in order to be wealthy. The author nicely backs his arguments up with some good real-world stories and examples. I found it thought-provoking enough to take away a lot of ideas for my own good, and note them down in my personal diary.

If I were to reduce the book to one or two lines, it would be this — the only way to get rich is to save more, be consistent and patient with your investments, believe in the power of compounding, and the ideal financial goal is to be able to do whatever the fish you want to do in life.

The postscript chapter on how the American economy became the biggest in the world through self-sustenance and internal growth is an interesting read. Not to be skipped!