Musing #68: Making the most of Audible trial

Listening to a book doesn't quite have the same panache as reading one, but sometimes it is the only option. While I am an avid fan of podcasts on long commutes, sometimes audio books can fill the void quite well. However, in case of audio books, for me, it is unabridged or nothing, which depending on the author's preference for brevity can extend to numerous hours; a significant investment of time whichever way you look at it.

Review #55: Lethal White ★★★☆☆

Having grown up reading the classic whodunits, I can never restrain myself from a good mystery. Ironically, this also means that until now I had never followed a series as it was being written. This accolade falls to the "Cormoron Strike" series, though not particularly for its literary prowess.

Review #49: Masters of Doom ★★★☆☆

It is not all doom and gloom!

This was a strange choice of book to begin a new year with but it is one of those things that pique your interest and you follow through with it. Stranger still is the fact that I never completed a level in any of the id games, let alone Doom. I do remember starting up the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3-D and the demo for Doom 3, but the session never lasted more than a few minutes. In fact, I remember returning a copy of the Quake II to a vendor stating technical issues when in fact I disliked the game. Gratuitous violence was never my thing. Yeah, I am one of those ‘story’ guys that John Carmack might have so despised. The only game I could relate to throughout the book was Deus Ex, which incidentally happens to be my best game of all time.

Review #43: The One Device

As a technology enthusiast, there was no escaping this book. I refer to technology rather than a company because I have never been an ardent Apple or Google fan, having only recently switched from Android to iOS. At the same, it wasn't a case of eagerness to read the book as it was the fact that I was bombarded with references to the book wherever I went, be it on podcasts or tech sites. Hence, I was able to put the book further down my reading list until I finally came across it a few days back.

Going by the book's name and the timing of its release, it would be valid to presume that it has the blessings of Apple and would offer candid insights from the who’s who of the iPhone team. However, as the book makes it clear upfront, Apple's veil of secrecy extends to the extent that no current (and some former) employee can share their story on the record. Hence, the book instead relies on the recounting by other industry stalwarts as well as anonymous Apple sources. This kind of anonymity can impact the credibility of some of the stories but in this case, it can't be helped and it certainly seems to fit the narrative. The other aspect is that one may be beguiled in to thinking that the book would only be focussed on the immediate story of the device's inception, however that is thankfully left to the eponymous last chapter of the book. As a result, the book is able to tell a much more holistic story than would have been possible if it had been focussed on the device alone.

As soon as you start reading the book, it becomes evident that the author is extending a thread from Steve Jobs' biography with his allusion to the "lone inventor" and the author admits to as much. While being repetitive, it is essential to do so because one must see past the mist of Steve Jobs to understand the significantly substantial efforts put in by thousands of others. In fact, the hard headedness of Steve meant that others had to put in far more onerous efforts to help him see the light of the day, only for him to take all the credit. At the same time, Steve paved the highway to success that few other leaders can, bogged down by the immense bureaucracy within the company.

The initial chapters of the book make it amply clear than the iPhone was a significant evolution than the revolution it was proclaimed to be. Another case of standing on the shoulders of giants. This is essentially the premise of the book as it unearths the origins of all that made the iPhone possible. It is humbling to think that century-old satire rather than science fiction accurately portrayed the state of affairs in the 21st century. Even then, the patent arts littered throughout the book indicate how ideas have to wait for years in order for technology to catch up and portray them as revolutionary.

A couple of topics that have always been associated with Apple and the iPhone are conflict mining and the state of working conditions in factories. Both these aspects are covered in detail in the chapters "Minephones", "Lion Batteries" and "Designed in California, Made in China". It is in a way mortifying to think of the people, especially children, whose livelihood depends on cheating death daily to ship the materials for the iPhone. The book is even replete with an adventure in Foxconn City, a humbling insight in to the human price of the iPhone. Of course, Apple has taken steps to ensure better working conditions but that doesn't help those who continue to work in abject conditions for other manufacturers, especially Chinese ones that have less regard for human rights.

As much as users may be pedantic over the iPhone's appearance, it is heartening to see the same level of attention being shown to its components by the author. Hence, the later chapters focus on the origins of Gorilla Glass, multi touch, image stabilization, sensors, processors, antenna, Siri and security enclave. This makes for an interesting read and again emphasizes the notion that the iPhone was more evolutionary than revolutionary as it managed to reap the benefits of miniaturization over the decades and integrate them in a rather appealing package. At the same time, it seems that the author tries a bit too hard in associating modern technology with erstwhile relics like the volvelle because it fits the narrative from his perspective. The book also captures the once prolific jailbreaking scene which has since slowed to a crawl with incremental feature and security updates in iOS. Nonetheless, it was great to hear from the various personalities involved in it as my exposure was simply limited to running the tools bearing their name.

As I have glossed over previously, those expecting an origin story of the iPhone, ought to find solace in the last chapter of the book. Of course, the build up to it is scattered across the chapters, without which you wouldn't be able to identify the characters involved. However, the emphasis once again is on the sacrifice of the unsung heroes involved in the creation of the device. While the sufferings of the designers in US might not have been at the same level as those involved in mining and assembly, there isn't denying the fact that the one device has claimed its fair share of victims along the way.

Reflecting on the book, it is apparent it was meant to be a reference on the iPhone and not so much about an iPhone. It is historic in context and therefore will stand the test of time as an accurate reflection of the iPhone's legacy on its 10th anniversary, much more than Apple's pretentious photo book. However, the book is by no means a page turner and could have benefited significantly from being tauter. While a good story has certainly been told, it hasn't been done in a particularly engaging manner. Still. this is a recommended read for anyone interested in technology and smartphones, rather than just the iPhone.

Musing #36: The Next Big Thing

I just started reading 'The One Device' the other day and have made it past the first couple of chapters wherein the book briefly touches over Apple's transition to innovation after its lost years. Of course, this is not the first time I have come across the story as the Steve Jobs' biography covers it in much greater detail. However, the underlying message to take away is that well-executed ideas can make a huge difference to the fortunes of a company, even though the innovation may be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Although the situation is far from similar, reading this phase of Apple's history makes me ponder over the flux the Indian IT industry finds itself in now. If anything, the requirement for innovation in the industry has been expedited. However, what comes around in the public domain sounds more like Orwellian Newspeak. The mention of AI, Automation, Cloud, Digital, Agile in the broadest of terms seems to have little more intention than to placate the shareholders. After all, shareholders in India seem to be a particularly emotional bunch going by the swings that take place after an obvious piece of news is shared by the media. This has necessitated the use of these terms along with others like Big Data, DevOps which have been in circulation for a pretty long time, enough for them to not be considered as part of a novel strategy. Yet, it forms the basis of optimism for a huge industry and its employees.

Ideas need execution to be successful. The basic tenet of the Indian IT industry has been cost arbitrage and providing services for cheap. Unfortunately, the same strategy seems to be permeating itself in the “new” fields. Hence, when the industry speaks of AI, it isn't referring to top of the line machine and deep learning. Instead it alludes to automation of basic operational tasks based on limited algorithmic branching. Even the innovation that does occur in this space is not happening here in India but through talent hired abroad with the usual instruction based implementation being passed on to cheaper coders in India. Similarly, the digital revolution through products and platforms is based on imitating the functionalities of well-established software at a fraction of the price. It is thus a case of simply picking the low hanging fruit.

Establishing any roadmap is based on industry trends and a fair bit of optimism. One certainly must move along with emerging technologies but the success of any buzzword isn't guaranteed. Case in point is that of Virtual Reality. Not until a few years ago, it was seen as the next big thing. Cost has always been attributed as a key factor in the uptake of VR. However, that isn't the case for something like Google Cardboard. It certainly offers a basic experience but at the same time illustrates the fallibility of VR. Beyond the initial novelty of the experience, it becomes very difficult to get people to come back again. One can only take so many rollercoaster rides, scenic walks and museum visits in isolation. Gaming and interactive story telling might be expected to alleviate this but VR has become part of a vicious circle wherein it has been unable to attain critical mass which has in turn kept content creators from investing too much in it. The VR industry is taking recourse by cutting hardware prices for high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but unfortunately it seems destined to be niche. As has been the case in the past, mobiles will have to lead the way. However, it seems inevitable that AR experiences as those that will be provided by Apple's ARKit will be the mainstream option for once again it is just a case of incremental innovation.

This brings me back to the Apple and iPhone story. All the pieces of the puzzle were long in existence but none of them were put together in the manner which made the iPhone seem like magic. The next big thing might will not be a revolution but a simple evolution that seems like magic. Being ahead of time is as much as a failure as being late to the party. What one needs is a bridge between the present and the past such that people find the journey to the future much more exciting than the destination itself.

Review #41: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Not so much of an art as common sense

This one is straight off the Amazon best sellers list. Otherwise, I can't imagine searching for the book by its name. In fact, even Amazon search can't deal with the asterisk censorship and so the best you can get is "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fck". However, those disappointed by the censorship would be glad to know that the 4-letter word (and its extensions) appears in full glory throughout the book. I often question myself about the creative impact of using expletives but in this case, it is just a literary device, so you might as well replace it with whatever word stirs up your guts.

The theme of the book is pretty much summed up by its title. It is about focus, choosing what you care about, just doing it and not giving a damn about things that do little more than drain away life's sap. To that end, the message in the book is repetitive and contains tidbit of knowledge that I find myself sharing with acquaintances. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite make me a life guru for I admittedly fail to put my money where my mouth is, dissemination being much easier than treading the path by yourself. The book also doesn't consistently hit the witticism gong but its forthrightness is bound to strike a chord.

Inevitably, preaching is true of any self-help book since it is all about self-realization and how one chooses to act up on it. To that effect, the book gets in to the stride right away with the story of Bukowski and his epitaph "don't try". The final part about immortality projects, conceptual self and the need to leave a legacy is particularly poignant but then that would be a recommendation for another book than this one. Such anecdotes littered throughout the book add substance to what may otherwise be construed as preaching. Also, most of the words of wisdom are borne out of experience and hence easy to appreciate for their relevance.

I would recommend this book to a lot of people whom I feel are far too obsessed with life's vagaries. However, it is only out of the altruistic (certainly not buying the book for them) hope that it will help them take a much more positive outlook towards life. At the same time, I wouldn't say that the book has flipped a switch in my mind for I see much of what is mentioned in this book as common knowledge but for the fact that application of the same is an altogether different beast. Ultimately, the book is of utility to those who want to find some use of it.

At the end of the day, one should understand that the book isn't a gospel and simply a person's take on life based on his experiences. It leaves a lot to disagree with since it seems a lot of the metaphors were shoehorned in this book to fill up the pages. For instance, a section of the book can be equated to the oft-used phrase "money doesn't bring happiness". This is easy to appreciate but at the same time a bit difficult to fathom when the entire world revolves around it and is undoubtedly a driving force behind the author's choice of career. Another instance is about failure bringing you back to where you started which is as true as you wish it to be for life doesn't remain in stasis while you fail. Similarly, despite the author's life struggles, his experiences are built up on his journey across countries which has been feasible on the strength of him being in the United States and having access to "cheaper" countries. Would these perspectives be true for someone struggling through life in a developing country and having lesser forms of escapism? Again, I believe not. The author chooses to harp on transient moments in life to put through a message. I often have thoughts running through my mind as I stare at the setting sun on the beach with the wind running through my hair and the waves receding after gracing my feet. While these picturesque moments fit well in to books and movies, the accompanying narrative doesn't translate much in to changing the humdrum of life. Of course, I could be as wrong about my take on life as much as the author is right, but such pessimism wouldn't find its way in to a book.

This is not to say that there isn't much to take away from this book and derive some positivity from it to apply to your life. The self-help industry wouldn't have been such a lucrative one if everyone knew what's best for them. At the same time, unless you have been living under a rock, you would have your own experiences and lessons from life that ought to have taught you a lot more, only if you chose to pay attention.

Review #40: Reasons to stay alive

My interest is seldom piqued by messages shared on social media. Hence, it was a rare occurrence for me to have picked up this book on Kindle minutes after reading an excerpt shared by a friend. I can often be accused of indulging in the cardinal sin of judging a book by its cover, though in my defence, it is the back cover blurb I am speaking of rather than the front cover art which is never germane to the content. However, I happened to make an exception when purchasing the book and turned over to the first page, truly blind and oblivious to the subject matter.

What struck me immediately was the earnestness and candidness in the tone of the writing. It can only come from someone who has sunk to the depths and risen from it, to an extent. For someone, who hasn't experienced depression or anxiety in any form, the story might seem like an exaggeration but that is definitely not the case. As masking is always seen as the more acceptable option when dealing with society, the worst of depression or anxiety never manifests itself in the visible world.

Being more attuned to fiction, I found the rawness of this book particularly refreshing and eye-opening. The shorter chapters interspersed with varying anecdotes lend well to reading by those who tend to slip in to contemplation and perhaps, recollection. Also, the book doesn't overdraw itself by being as concise as it is precise. It stands out as a good read by not only those experiencing anxiety or depression but by anyone in general, to better understand those invisible messages around us that just happen to be the most vital ones.

Review #35: Steve Jobs (Biography)

There are some people you look up to but don't exactly idolize when growing up and for me Steve Jobs was one of them. Growing up with stories on the Silicon Valley meant it was hard to escape Steve Jobs and his antagonist for the most part - Bill Gates. I am unsure how I first came across the Apple story but the notable ones I remember from the 90s are the 'Triumph of the Nerds' and 'Pirates of the Silicon Valley'. Subsequent to it, I suppose I again got a good whiff of Apple when reading Wozniak's iWoz about a decade back. Although I wasn't piqued by any of the movies, Hollywood's sudden interest in Steve Jobs got me to finally pick up his biography, albeit 2 years later. When starting out with the book, the question on my mind was whether it was going to add anything significant to the Apple story that is so inextricable from Steve Jobs.

Turns out that when a biographer has spent years with the subject and has dedicated 42 chapters to it, then there is an awful lot to know. The only other Walter Issacson book that I have read previously is "The Innovators" where the story itself wasn't new but the perspective of the personalities involved in it was. Here again, Isaacson masterfully brings out the personality of Steve Jobs, even as the story tends to sway chronologically. It feels genuine because it overcomes the so-called "reality distortion field" and doesn't try to powder over the imperfections and failures of Steve Jobs as a human being. As is already mentioned in the book, it was odd of Steve Jobs to cede control for once and the book is much better because of it.

While the garage to spaceship story of Apple is well documented, there are quite a lot of tidbits to take away from the book. The "why would Xerox give away its secrets" question had me perplexed based on the depictions I had previously read or seen and hence it was satisfying to know that it was once again a case of money doing the talking, or rather getting reticent engineers to give away their secrets. While the "1984" ad was iconic, the book got me to check the awful "Lemmings" commercial for the first time. Similarly, it had me searching for his narration of the "Think Different" ad which inevitable leads to Cook's speech at Steve's funeral. While Steve may forever be known for his Midas touch, the book poignantly lays out "Steve's folly" that worked against him and his company. It is hard to believe that Apple would have sold more "Bicycles" than "Macintoshes", but it was yet another case of Steve trying to change something he didn't come up with rather than accept it. Anecdotes like his failure to realise the appeal of the iPod Mini or the ROKR deal indicate that his business acumen was not infallible.

Since Steve Jobs meant the book to be one for his children, it is no wonder that there is also a lot of focus on his personal life. His contradictory stance to those around him feels incomprehensible throughout. His dehumanising trait is captured not only in his distant relationship with his daughter Lisa but also with those he shared a very close relationship. His refusal to give Andy Hertzfeld a bonus because he was on leave or his decision "to give zero" shares to Kottke are shocking examples of his lack of empathy. Such instances are so common through the book that you tend to desensitise and think of it as a case of "Steve being himself", a defence often put forth by Steve. All said and done, he still seemed to have a soft spot for the Woz, an exception among the rules.

While Steve might have not set the standard in human relationships, he certainly did so in board rooms. The famous board room battle with Scully is certainly a highlight of the book but more so because of the build up to it wherein we not only get to know the personalities but their personal connect or the facade they maintained of it. However, his mini-battle with Amelio during NeXT's integration with Apple and a bigger one with Eisner from Disney make for far more interesting reads.

The part that I relate to most however is his business principles. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" and yet the lack of complexity is generally seen as a manifestation of inability by many in the corporate sphere. Similarly, division of a company in to semi-autonomous divisions with separate PnL is often seen as empowering even as it leads to shortsightedness and incohesion that often hinders the company in the grander scheme of things. A natural consequence of this is the alienation of employees within the same organisation who also fail to connect with the organisation's vision. Similarly, a company's fear of cannibalisation often indicates its lack of confidence in its own products. Also appreciable was his ability to prove wrong seasoned business analysts like Christensen and to create a market rather than research it.

At the end of it all, this is a book that leaves you with a lot to ponder over. A story that follows a theme usually doesn't stick out but this one does because of the contradictions of its primary character. A perfectionist who was far from perfect himself. An unemotional wrecker of people's spirits who'd express his own emotions in tears. A bold leader who'd break in to sweat when meeting his hero. A Zen minimalist who created objects of indulgence. For all the contradictions, one consistent factor was his desire to push humankind forward and for that the world is a better place.

Review #32: The Digital Money Game

I will admit that my interest in the book was piqued by the recent demonetization exercise. For most of us, digital money extends to any non-cash means of payment. Thus, in India, digital wallets like PayTM, Mobikwik and Freecharge are synonymous with digital money. However, as the book points out, digital wallets form only a small proportion of digital money which consists of any form of digital value transfer.

A thing to keep in mind before starting off with the book is that it considers its target audience to be those who are looking to enter in to this line of business more than any other subset of people. Hence, the book is not as strong conceptually as it is in helping understand the market through its myriad of case studies. It also uses a gaming paradigm which works really well. Normally, a game paradigm would work for any industry but it fits really well over here since it is an emerging and evolving industry.

Section I (The Game Space) of the book introduces the concept of digital money by dispelling the myths most commonly associated with digital money and gives an indication to the size of the addressable market. Section II (Player Perspectives) focuses mainly on the stakeholders in this sphere of business and this is where the gaming paradigm of the book comes to the fore. The inclusion of past play, current status and future play for each category of player (eg. Mobile Network Operators) puts one on a coherent path that is easy to grasp. Section III (The Endgame) of the book sets up a formal framework and explains the characteristics of digital money in further detail before laying out a future vision.

In terms of the Indian landscape, the book mentions the presence of 8 pre-paid payment providers but the only notable name included is Airtel Money. Aadhar is spoken of as an enabler though recent developments like Aadhar enabled payments don't find a mention in terms of future possibilities. ICICI Bank finds a mention because of its size. A prominent case study from the Indian perspective mentioned in the book is that of FINO which I was not aware of.

Ultimately, the book falls short in 2017 on account of being a victim of time. The latest reference I could find is from July 2014 which is a lifetime in this fast evolving sector. This anachronism is amusing in the way the book speaks of European Unity, the revolutionary Amazon Fire phone and Bitcoin. Consequently, the vibrant Indian payments landscape that has developed since is sorely absent. The book feels like a plug-in for the Shift Thought portal which itself is terribly dated. Hence, while the book is a decent read, it is perhaps worth less of the time it necessitates.

Review #15: The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

It is always difficult to describe a book that makes you lose track of time. Unfortunately, in my case it wasn't the kind wherein you can't let go of the book till you read it cover to cover but quite the opposite. I have no recollection of when I had started off with the book and doesn't say anything bad about it. In fact, the book affords itself to discontinuous reading because of its chronological nature.

The elaborate subtitle of the book does a good job of describing what the book is all about. It is largely the evolutionary tale of computing driven through the stories of revolutionary characters. But as the book tells you repeatedly, nothing great came out a single mind. It is all about standing over the shoulders of giants and looking further ahead.

In that frame of reference, the book does a very good job of bringing in to the spotlight some obscure characters whose contribution has otherwise been forgotten. Anyone acquainted with technology would know of machines like Difference Engine, ENIAC, UNIVAC as well as personalities like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, this book fills in the blanks that most people tend to oversee when attributing greatness to singular minds.

The most promising among these is the chapter on Ada Lovelace and her groundwork on the foundations of general purpose computing. It is by far the best chapter of the book together with the last one which again evokes Ada for an argument on Artificial Intelligence vs Augmented Intelligence. It very well might be that I am biased towards it for the novelty it brought about within an otherwise predictable story. After all, you cannot change history (not at least in this day and age unless you have a monopoly on Wikipedia articles) and its course which results in one knowing almost all of the details on the more prominent personalities.

On the whole, the book lends itself to some good reading. The technical details can be a hit or miss depending on where you are coming from. As a person with an engineering degree in electronics and telecommunication, most of the details seem superficial. At the same time, I can imagine the frustrations of a reader who is more concerned with the story rather than the technical details which they can do without. In that context, the book does a good job of balancing between extremes, but it is bound to lead to dissatisfaction amongst some reader groups. Nevertheless, the book will certainly ignite an entrepreneurial spark for bringing about a revolution, even as mundanity lurks around the corner. A real life story well told is never wasted.