Book Recommendations 2020

About 9 months ago, my sister decided to start a book club. The idea was to read one book a month. She and all the other members fell behind after the first month. There were many spirited efforts made to keep up with reading. Ultimately, since we all shared her Kindle account, it turned out that she ended up buying a lot of books for ME to read. 

Here is the list of books I read this year as a part of the ‘Buy books for Vivek Club!’

Atomic Habits by James Clear – It was a quick read. Atomic Habits talks about how to develop a habit in small steps that many would find very useful. I enjoyed reading the book. Some of the tips were already known to me, but the how is what matters and the writer does a good job at it.

Einstein by Walter Isaacson – I have always been fascinated by Physics but this book is not so much about the Physics as the man behind the physics. It is a fascinating read like most books by Walter are. This book dives into the nuances of the discoveries made while at the same time discussing the myriad flaws that made up the person. It was an enjoyable read.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – Shoe Dog is an autobiography by the founder of Nike. Set in a time that many of us may not relate easily with, the book traces the rise of the company and the challenges that it had to overcome to become what it is today. Phil a runner himself co-founded the company with his coach. A fascinating read spanning decades. I absolutely recommend it.

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance – Elon Musk is a very controversial figure and this is an authorised biography of his life. As you might expect, it paints him in rosy colours. The book traces his childhood, the founding of Paypal and all the rest thereafter. It is quite an inspiring book and a quick read.

The Brain: the story of you by David Eagleman – While an interesting book, ‘The Brain’ simplifies the science behind how the brain works. It is certainly not the best book I have read this year but I would certainly recommend it if you want to learn the inner workings of the human brain. 

The Ivory Throne by Manu S Pillai – The Ivory Throne is a book that takes you through the last 100 years of the Travancore Empire. While it goes further back at times to set the context, it is a very detailed and an unbearably biased retelling of the decline of the throne. Filled with painful details of the intrigues that made up royal life. This one took me the longest to complete also because it is so damn long. My advice read the short description on Wikipedia.

The hidden life of trees by Peter Wohlleben – You will not see another tree the same way! Peter loves the forest and having spent so much time in the woods, he explains how trees behave. This is a deeply insightful book that explains a lot of the biology of how trees grow, communicate and thrive. When you read this book, you will learn about the feelings that trees have. I highly recommend this book.

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark – While the book is meant to explain the maths behind the physics, it is written delightfully. Max writes with wit and it makes the book fun to read. He is also incredible at explaining the concepts from the sub-atomic to the intergalactic. I would certainly recommend this book.

Measure What Matters by John Doerr – The legendary Investor behind Google, Facebook and several other startups; John Doerr shares what all these startups have in common. Objectives and Key Responsibilities (OKR). A management style first pioneered at Intel; this book takes you through the process of setting up OKRs. It also shares case studies of products like Google Chrome and how OKRs played a role in their success. If you are starting a startup or struggling with managing one, a must-read. 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – The book is an autobiography of a surgeon who does not manage to realise his potential because he contracts cancer just at the verge of the completion of his internship. The book is about his struggles with the disease and his perspective of what his life would have meant. A short and breezy read.

Behave by Robert Sapolsky – Humans are capable of incredible violence but at the same time we are also capable of great kindness. What triggers one decision or the other? Robert attempts to answer such questions through the analysis of the processes that go in the brain that precipitate them. 

The Moonshot Game by Rahul Chandra – This book is the biography of a fund. Rahul lays out how Helion VC got started, the challenges that they faced on the other side of the table and how the firm finally met with its end. If you want a closer look at the workings of a VC fund, it is worth a read.

Kohinoor by William Dalrymple – There were three books by William Dalrymple that I read this year. Kohinoor traces the history of the famous diamond from India to Persia, back to India, and then to the Crown of the Queen. For any Indian, it is a painful read because it chronicles the subterfuge and theft that the British engaged in. While it is a history book, it feels like a novel. Beautifully written. Must read. #ShortRead

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker – A researcher, with 20 years of research in his bag explains sleep and its importance in our lives. I think this is the most important book that I have read this year. The awesome part is that he does not stop with the science, he does into its implications on business, policy and life.

The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato – Most of the biggest innovations are seeded by the government. The companies normally figure out the application and scale part of it but rarely do they invest in figuring out the science. This is the foundation on which the book is written and provides example after example from America of how the exceptional companies were able to take advantage of investments made decades ago, whether that be clean energy, the internet, AI or several other things. Also makes a case for why it is fair to tax these companies more heavily.

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil – Algorithms determine so many things in our lives today. How much credit do you get? Whether you get recruited or not? Are you suspected of a crime? These algorithms are all fundamentally biased and we live in a world with the bias is hidden by making it sound like the algorithms are complex impossible to understand code. Cathy rips apart the bias and showcases what far-reaching effect that has on the lives of people.

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple – This book is an ode to Delhi by the author who moved to the city in 1989. The book describes the Delhi of 1989 and traces the history that brought it there. Each chapter takes you back a few hundred years and shares the stories that make Delhi what it is today. If you have ever lived in Delhi this is a book you just cannot miss.

Anarchy by William Dalrymple – This is the first of the three of his books I read this year. Anarchy charted the rise of the East Indian Company from 1600 to 1800. He stops just before the revolt of 1857 which led to the nationalisation of the company. It’s a book that should be made a mandatory part of school syllabus in my opinion. History is told like a story and is incredible.

Range by David Epstein – In a world that appreciates and sometimes even pushes people towards specialisation, how important is the breadth of knowledge? With several examples from the past and the present, he makes a case for generalisation and the need for knowledge from across streams for us to be able to pick out the right analogy to understand what we are faced with.

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – A veritable genius, Leonardo da Vinci had several achievements. Walter Isaacson does his best to trace and put together the life of the artist and scientist also taking the time to describe some of his greatest achievements. Absolutely worth the read. 

How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky – A book that is right for the times, this book takes you through the evolution of the political system in America since the Civil rights movement. It provides an insight into what guardrails protect democracy and how they have come apart in the past and how those are beginning to come apart in different parts of the world.

Eight Lessons on Infinity by Haim Shapira – This book is a journey through numbers. Eight different mathematical challenges and how to understand infinity. It is a short and quick read. Most of the mathematics is simple and fun to engage with while all of them related to the single concept of infinity.

Refuge by Dina Nayeri – A novel that is perhaps quite auto-biographical. The story of a refugee from Iran whose father is still left behind. The challenges that the family faces, the lack of personal interactions over the years and a sense of the difficulty that her father would have, trying to integrate as a refugee at an old age. It is the moving story of the evolution of a relationship. 

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh – Set in Colonial India, the book traces the stories of several lives that converge towards a ship due to circumstances that are beyond their control. It is an interesting read that paints a picture of life in those times and the uncertainty of things in those days. It was interesting in parts but is not something that I would highly recommend. 

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells – This book is a balanced portrait of the climate crisis that we are currently faced with. Instead of diving into the science of climate change, this book goes into the effects that are obvious for everyone to see. It also tries to look at the actions that we can and need to take to keep the earth a habitable place.

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson – I read this book rather slowly but enjoyed it much. While the book is meant as a biography of Benjamin Franklin, it also provides great insight into why America is the way it is. What were the seeds that led to the formation of the country and how divided they were. Another incredible book by Walter Isaacson. Highly recommend.

Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams – I read only the first part of the 5-part trilogy as he describes it. Set in a Universe where Earth is destroyed to make way; the book is the story of an earthling who manages to escape the planet and takes a sojourn across the universe with his alien friend Ford Prefect. I have heard a lot of high praise for the book, but I have to admit, I did not enjoy this one all that much.

God by Reza Aslan – God is an attempt to explain the thought process that led to the creation of God by mankind. While the book starts out well, it leaves much to be wanted. First of all, it is far too short and never gets into the depths of any topic. I would not recommend this book. 

Failing to Succeed by K Vaitheeswaran – The book chronicles the rise of the first e-commerce company in India – Fabmart. Starting in 1999 the challenges and the difficulties that the team faced and what eventually led to the failure of their e-commerce business. A book filled with startup insights while at the same time sharing more than a decade long story. It is also a useful lesson in what happens when you get too attached to your business and do not know when to quit.

Breath by James Nestor – James dives into how important it is to breathe and how we do it wrong all the time. He illustrates the same through an experiment he puts himself through and explains how various traditional techniques change our bodies and the power that they hold within them. I enjoyed reading the book and would certainly recommend it.


Learning by Proxy | Farm Bill

On the eve of Guru Nanak Jayanti, a group of Punjabi farmers camped at the border of Delhi cooked food for the night. The government asked them to move to designated areas so that talks could be held on the 3rd of December. A couple of days before, the Prime Minister of the country flew to visit vaccine labs across the country rather than visit the farmers to help them understand his vision.

What is the point all the marketing this government engages in if you are never there when trouble foments?

Farm Bill

When the European first came to India, they lusted after the Indian spices which were of very high quality. Also, they could not grow them locally in Europe and trading with India became a necessary evil. Indian farmers and kingdoms were able to quote the price they wished because the demand was high and farm output was not as much. 

Over time, as the British chased all the rest of the Europeans out and consolidated power, they started forcing farmers to produce crops that they needed. Apart from food grains, poppy, tea and cotton were important for the British trade. What was the point of consolidating power if the Indians could charge what they wished? 

For this, the first regulated market was set up in the Hyderabad Residency in 1886. They also passed the Berar Grain and Cotton Market Act of 1887 which allowed the British to declare any area as a market in the designated region and also set up a committee to regulate the trade (and prices). 

The Agri-markets were tools of oppression. After Independence, a new argument took root that preserved this institution; that farmers would not be able to find the right price for their produce and would be required to sell their produce at throwaway prices. The supposed high cost of marketing resulted in the Agriculture Produce Market Committee which each state government could setup. This may have also been true! Half the country depending on farming for their income; most of the rest were also poor and we were copying USSR at everything.

Since Independence, this has been true, till the Farm Bill 2020 arrived. First of all, the manner in which the bill was passed did make the contents of the bill seem far more sinister.

On Sunday, things hit a new low when the Bills were passed by a voice vote despite opposition MPs asking for a division, i.e. a recorded vote – which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clearly was not in a position to win.

The stubborn stand taken by the regime in the Rajya Sabha on September 20 against the demand of opposition parties, including the Biju Janata Dal, to refer the farm Bills – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 – to a select committee of the House for better scrutiny and examination, is reflective of its unwillingness to subject those Bills to deeper levels of deliberation and consultation, eschewing party perspectives.

Source: The Wire

So what does the bill actually say?

The Bills which aim to change the way agricultural produce is marketed, sold and stored across the country were initially issued in the form of ordinances in June. They were then passed by voice-vote in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha during the delayed monsoon session this month, despite vociferous Opposition protest. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, allows farmers to sell their harvest outside the notified Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis without paying any State taxes or fees. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, facilitates contract farming and direct marketing. The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, deregulates the production, storage, movement and sale of several major foodstuffs, including cereals, pulses, edible oils and onion, except in the case of extraordinary circumstances. 

Source: The Hindu

There has been strong opposition to the Farm Bill from the time that it was passed. A huge portion of the opposition has been based on the fact that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that was guaranteed by the APMC erodes with this new bill. Over the years, the APMC has reduced the farmer’s ability to find new markets where higher prices could be found.

Going back to the 1500s when the Europeans arrived in India, if the Europeans were allowed to buy at MSP in APMCs, they would have been none too happy. The farm sector has been stuck because of the APMC Act. Farmers’ produce can only be sold in a designated APMC within the state even though there could be shortages elsewhere in other states which could fetch them a better price. 

But farmers are fearful that without the APMC monopoly, the state governments might no longer find it viable to run the APMCs and they will lose the security that this offers.

Truth is, the current generation of farmers have known no other way. This is the only reality that they have ever known.

The farmers in Haryana and Punjab are some of the largest producers of staples in India and they have been dependent on the MSP to get through times when market prices are depressed. The problem is with the way the market is currently set up. If you and everyone around you are producing the same thing and selling at the same place at the same time because these are seasonal crops; supply is bound if overtake demand at some point. The government is no fool they offer the MSP because they can then move that produce to other parts of the country and sell it.

State governments generate a lot of tax income through the APMC. They do not want to encourage their farmers to sell in other states, this will impact their coffers. While this is another knee jerk change which is typical of this government, I DO believe this is for the best.

Imagine a farmer in Indiana having to sell all his corn only in Indiana to the government of The United States of America at a preset price!

The farmers in Punjab decided to sit on railway tracks and protest. The central government one-upped them by stopping all railways and bus services in and out of Punjab! After protesting for a month, the farmers decided to move the theatre of protests to Delhi. They felt their voices were not being heard; which they weren’t. The government decided to stop the protests from reaching Delhi. The protesters were hosed down by water cannons and the highways leading up to Delhi turned into trenches.

First of all, it does not makes for great optics and it is not really inspiring trust.

The Farm Bill is one of the few pieces of legislation that I believe is a right step by this government. I was quite excited to see what impact this has on the agri-tech startup scene which is currently playing either the role of the middle man or flirting with more tech and little with agri. 

The trouble is that farmers are seeing the situation as one where the market is limited and everyone seeking to minimise the price. While the fact is that there is a potential to grow their market far beyond their state borders and open up a lot of opportunities which can drive prices up. Instead of having a dialogue and explaining this, the government is busy treating them as miscreants and trouble-makers. 

I often ask these questions on pricing to aspiring entrepreneurs:

You could sell a cup of coffee at Rs. 10 and get 1000 customers OR

You could sell a cup of coffee at Rs. 100 and get 100 customers OR

You could sell a cup of coffee at Rs. 300 and get 30 customers;

How can you maximise profit? What price would you sell it at?

The right answer is all of these price points. Practical execution – Coffee Day vending machines in offices; Cafe Coffee Day stores and Coffee Day Square.

The farm bill provides farmers with the same opportunity. Cooperate, consolidate, find the right markets and sell it at a price that fits. We could see many Amuls emerging in the coming years. Instead, we are having a shitshow at hand because of improper communication.

On that note

Hypocrites will be hypocrites

Canada has a large number of Sikhs that live there. They represent 1.5% of the Canadian population and therefore are an important voter base. Consequently, the Canadian PM is prone to making a lot of stupid statements to appease them, including pushing the idea of a Khalistan.

Canada may have voiced concerns over the ongoing farmer protests in India against the central government’s three farm bills, but in the past, it has never left any opportunity to challenge India’s farm subsidies at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

On Tuesday, while addressing members of the Sikh community in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the situation of Indian farmers agitating against the farm bills is “concerning” and that his country will “be there to defend the rights of peaceful protest”. India, however, rejected the comments as being “ill-informed”.

Source: The Print

The same country acts as if it is at the forefront of the green movement and highly concerned about climate change while at the same time promoting the extraction of oil from Tar Sands (the WORST way to produce oil) and then promote the Keystone pipeline as well which will cause further environmental damage along the way while hurting the sentiments of indigenous people.

Amazon is on a tear

Last quarter when Amazon reported its sales numbers, the executives said, these numbers would be high for December quarter. The restrictions coupled with fear and empty toilet paper category in many supermarkets pushed shoppers online. Amazon has grown its revenue number phenomenally during the pandemic and has been perhaps the greatest beneficiary. Its argument at most anti-trust hearing used to be that in the entire retail business it occupies a small percentage, that has changed.

Source: Benedict Evans

For all the automation, the company is still heavily dependant on people to run its warehouses.

The hiring has taken place at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, at its hundreds of warehouses in rural communities and suburbs, and in countries such as India and Italy. Amazon added 427,300 employees between January and October, pushing its workforce to more than 1.2 million people globally, up more than 50 per cent from a year ago. Its number of workers now approaches the entire population of Dallas.

Source: New York Times

Amazon now has half as many employees as Walmart and the window is closing on its ability to escape greater scrutiny but lawmakers. In that way, the pandemic has brought the reckoning closer for Amazon.

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