Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Great Gender Data Gap


Caroline Perez (2019), Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Chatto & Windus, London, pp. 411

As we celebrate the international women’s history month in March every year, there is no better way to gain perspective than grab a copy of this well-researched and witty book that fiercely lays bare the gender-shaped hole in human history. Caroline Perez, a writer, broadcaster, and an award-winning feminist campaigner, brings her excellent research acumen and flair for debate to illuminate how the human society has been designed to suit the default setting called male. As a result, the female gender has always had to either unfairly adjust to the setting that did not take into consideration its existence or vociferously demand change often inviting the wrath of everyone.  Using mundane everyday inconveniences such as phones that are too big for their hands or city planning that was oblivious to their existence, to systematic structural inequalities such as assumptions of merit and skills at workplace that affect their progress and well-being, the author argues how women had to contend in a world designed for men.

Divided into six parts and sixteen chapters, the book delves into specific examples spanning the private lives to the public where the female is made invisible and its implications for everyone. Perez uses different types of data such as statistics to case studies, quantitative inferences to in-depth interviews to make her point. What makes her job extremely challenging and the reader’s experience exceptionally rewarding is that she succeeds in showing us the absences. Demonstrating care and domestic work, she unpacks the working of millions of women working invisibly and silently to keep the visible acts of male achievement alive. She also pulls up female achievement which has for centuries masqueraded as male genius, unearthing artists, scientists, doctors, engineers, thinkers, creators, and dreamers who contributed something original to humanity. She then discusses how can we build a future that is gender acknowledging.

Anyone who believes in an equal human society must read this work. So should individuals who are design thinkers and want to make a difference. So should young students and experienced researchers. This book indicates where we have been blind-sided and how to go about correcting ourselves. This work speaks of our unfair and unequal self-fulfilling psychological prophecies that have systematically failed to acknowledge girls and women as creative, constructive and capable human beings. My hope is that through works such as these, we have the persistence to also unearth other gender-shaped absences that have languished in the dark shadows of history.




Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Life with Books

Photo credit: Saatchi Art/ Reproduction of the painting Reading a Book by Trayko Popov

“What do they know of books, that only books know?”

This blog about books, that began its journey on a boxing day, has completed seven years of life. I knew that as long as I was up and about, one of the few things that I would be sure to do was read books. Writing about them was a natural step further; choosing to share it with the world, a cultivated commitment. Yet here we are in another decade, you reading what I wrote, and I reading what I am about to write. This will be a good time to share some of the things I often get asked about the blog.

First off, why this blog? I owe my love of reading mostly to the head-librarian of my school. Without knowing what a library was, one day, I forayed into its expansive entrance. The librarian sternly picked up four books from the nearby shelf and waved them in front of me. I reached out to one with a horse on the cover. She asked me to come back in a month to return the book along with a library notebook to write about what I had read. That is how I finished Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’ the first ever book I read on my own in English. For the first two years or so, I logged every single book I read in a notebook duly read by my librarian who had picked those books for me. So, reading, like all the goods things I have ever had the good fortune to learn, was a team project that was heavily supervised at first. That is also how reading began as an obsessive act of recording.

Do I read every book I write about here? No, I read far more! From the larger list of books, the ones featured here come for many reasons – gravity of theme, weight of arguments, originality, contemporaneity, recognition and so much more. If I have to boil them down to cardinal principles, then there are two that I have never violated. I have never written about a book that I really did not love. I have also never shared a book that I thought was not beautifully written and produced.

Why a generalist blog? When I began writing about books, there was no plan shape it up a particular way, including increasing readership. I have never really tried to attract readers by talking about just one type of books. In the end, talking more about one type of book would mean staying untrue to my reading, which is more akin to grazing the pastures than eating from a menu. Deep down, I read for pleasure and would not like to have it any other way. And even deeper down, I have always believed that books would help me with everything I need to know. Hence, the rabbit hole!

And now for the question that I do not get asked at all. Do you, as a reader, have to be wary of anything? CLR James the great cricket historian asked in his beautiful book ‘Beyond a boundary’ “what do they know of cricket that only cricket know”? This article begins with a similar rhetorical question on books. It is impossible to understand books without the larger context of life in which they are immersed. Conversely, it is challenging to comprehend life without books. Maybe, understanding this dilemma is a good way to be reminded of the importance of critical reading? So, dear reader, who stuck with me through thick and thin volumes, welcome back to happy reading!

Monday, 7 September 2020

The Portrait of a City

© Collage Poster Deepa Kylasam Iyer 2020

Short Biography of Cities Series (2013), Aleph, New Delhi.

There is something very assuring to the reader about short introductions and mini-series. I suppose it has to do with size; books of shorter length look conquerable, portable, and manageable. It is like running the smaller versions of marathon so that the amateur feels confident of completing the race. Nearly all of the introduction-series by various publishers also takes pains to bring color, design, and layout to the package that loudly suggests ‘ease’ to the idea of a book. I love reading philosophy and history in short versions (Oxford introductions and Routledge short series come to mind), find my footing or acquire a taste, and then move to the grander and sturdier tomes.

When I discovered the short biographies of cities (Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata) in my collection, I knew they had to be read together. First off, these mini-books are under 170 pages, roughly (15cm x 10cm), and hard bound with beautiful ivory covers on which delicate water colored themes open the gates to the city. The narrator is usually someone who has either lived a greater part of her life in the city, or has an indubitable connection to the ‘urbs’. The story of the city often begins with the grand sweep of history, then meanders through personal histories as we travel the nook and lanes of its landscape. There are maps and memories to fill in the bits nobody can speak about anymore. The best part is perhaps a gentle pointer to the bigger, definitive dramatic narratives on the city to which this simple sketch could be seen as a prelude to. I sure hope a second round of series come soon with smaller towns of southern Asia from the same publisher.

Till then, at this time of the year when everything collapses from the bright light of the relentless summer to the gentle dark of the inevitable fall, the time of in-between things, grab a cup of something soothing and dip into a short escape to something so grand as a city!



Saturday, 8 August 2020

Lost but Won

Prashant Kidambi (2019). Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First all India Team, Penguin Viking, pp. 453.

The last two years have been exceptional for the historical cricket literature genre in the Indian sub-continent. Two excellent histories on the Indian women’s cricket came by in quick succession (Free Hit by Supriya Das & The Fire Burns Blue by Karunya Keshav & Sidhanta Patnaik), both exhaustive and celebratory, followed by this story of the first all India cricket team by historian and Leicester University associate professor Prashant Kidambi. This tome is written in the great tradition of cricket prose in the subcontinent, the pre-eminent of which is Ramachandra Guha’s A corner of a foreign field. What the claim means is that the historian’s meticulous research into archival materials is matched by the story teller’s felicity of expression, to bring out Indian cricket’s birth in the hotbed of its political history.

Historian as Story-teller

Kidambi brings his historian’s arsenal to aid the digging and unearthing of the hidden people and incidents that make up this compelling story. Cricket’s idyllic and expansive Victorian mores undergo a fiery transformation when supplanted on the subcontinental shores. Layered by religion, caste, class, and political ideology, cricket becomes a ‘game of thrones’ between the British, Indian pundits, and the plebeians. Kidambi lays out, with an archeologist’s precision, the barebones of the politics, economics, and sociology of the sport that presciently reverberates to the present day.

The most poignant parts of this historical sketch are the extensive and empathetic portrayals of some of the least known pioneers such as the Dalit brothers Palwankar and Shivram Baloo, whose stupendous achievements in the face of adversity is as epic as their exploits in the field. Kidambi also unwaveringly captures the ebbs and flow of history beyond the boundary, to narrate how some waves passed cricket by, whereas some others changed the course of its future.

If you are like me, partial to cricket in its long format and its prose in the equally long form, this book is for your collection, to be read, re-read and bequeathed to heirs, like you would a Neville Cardus, CLR James, or Ramachandra Guha. If you have no idea why cricket prose should be gushed over, try this book. Like a good beverage, you may grow a taste for it. Cricket (like literature and monogamous marriage) should be battled with a gentle life-long commitment. Unlike the short ebullient high of the more thrilling avenues of adventure, this one works on your system slowly, and wins you over completely. If at all, you are destined to have an unfortunate affliction, why not be the gentle moon-faced cricket aficionado?

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Dealing with Disruption

Clayton M. Christensen (2000), The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard University Press, pp. 252.

I bought my copy of ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’ the week after Harvard Professor and one of the most prescient business thinkers of our time, Clayton Christensen died early this year. Author of numerous influential books including ‘The Innovator’s Solution’ (2003), ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ (2012), and most recently ‘The Prosperity Paradox’ (2019), Christensen was a teacher, and philosopher who had also established research organizations, investment and management consultancies that advised businesses to do well. This blog article is about his most famous book, and also a small way of giving tribute to his great intellect.

Main Thesis

The core of the book is about answering one question- how can businesses successfully deal with disruptive technology? The thesis of this book resonates even more so in a period when automation and platformization are disrupting the framework of our political economy. Christensen uses the example of the disk-drive industry that he had worked on towards his doctoral research. Then, he corroborates his findings using evidence from other sectors.

Christensen’s main finding is that companies that follow ‘good management practices’ such as listening to their customer base succeed with sustaining established technology, but fail miserably when faced with disruptive ones. This is because disruptive technology does not work out first in established markets. Disruptive technology enters a niche base of specialized users and takes time evolving in form, design and applications, while waiting for the right market to be introduced. First mover advantage matters the most while commercializing disruptive technology. There is a long period of gestation while research and experimentation take precedence over marketing and sales. Due to all these factors, mainstream companies and leaders in an industry often miss the advent of a new technology about to disrupt their sector. Using empirical evidence from successful case studies, Christensen proposes ways in which business organizations can successfully survive and dominate a disruptive technology curve.

Researcher’s Writer

This book is powerful not just for anyone who wants to understand how businesses should deal with disruptive technology, but also to young researchers about to write their first book. Christensen shows how to write a good book based on your original research. All the myriad conflicts a debutante author faces- how to use data, how to present findings in an interesting manner, how to arrange the reams you have researched over the years – are all pared down here. Written in crisp, simple, clear, everyday language, Christensen builds a thesis, without batting an eye lid, and without losing your attention. Get started on this book, and stay ahead of the curve!

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Mind Master

Viswanathan Anand (2019), Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life, Hachette India, Gurugram, pp. 262

I love reading sports champion’s memoirs. It is a great way to know how the big game looked through the eyes of the player, all the ups and downs as we knew it as purveyors of the game against how it felt living through it. It is something like a gladiator telling you how wrestling with the lion felt like. For me it works like this. First, there is a quick tallying of the big moments in my head against their impressions, and the vicarious pleasure of living through it again. What remains when you have finished reading is the opportunity to take something useful out of their lives into your own. Two of my all-time favorite books from sports champions are Pete Sampras’ ‘A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis’ and Garry Kasparov’s ‘How Life Imitates Chess’.

India’s First Grand Master

You can imagine how I felt dipping into the memoir of India’s first Grand Master in Chess and former World Champion Viswanathan Anand when I was waiting for the pandemic to subside and life to start over. The book gives you everything that you are hoping for, especially if you are a chess aficionado. It also gives a bit more- each chapter ends with a classic move on a chess board from the greatest games Anand ever played, with a nugget of wisdom to go with it.

Anand takes you through the big breaks in his chess career and gives a peek into his chess story -the beginning, the first win, the first foreign tour, being Grand Master and World Champion. We also get a gentle foray into his life story – with two sets of parental figures across two continents, meeting his wife, making friends (and enemies) and the birth of his son. He vividly describes the theatrics that goes into dueling it out at the board, the politics behind the scenes, and the advent of artificial intelligence that changed the way chess is played. Anand is fierce at his game and gentle as a person, and this contradiction resonates in the way he narrates his story with its soft sways and edgy turns! We feel nervous and anxious with him as he describes going into a game, and are forlorn as he deals with the loneliness of his failures and successes.

Personal Insights

The best part of the book for me was the personal insights. Anand keeps notes of every game obsessively, an old practice instilled in him by his mother. There is always the clarity you expect from a man who writes down his thoughts and the deliberate privileging of one fact over another, one facet above the rest. For example, whilst talking about fortifying his game, Anand brings us to the ideas of serendipity and limitless learning. He talks about how important it is to be curious about the things you do not know, and learning a wide range of things that are of no immediate relevance. He says it naturally as part of the narrative and yet you stop and take note of it.

In many ways, Anand is an unusual champion. He plays in the top league of the game at the age of fifty! That fact speaks of the way his mind works, sharp and steady, patient and resilient. That is one among the many reasons to read this book.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Understanding the Gig Economy

Sarah Kessler (2018), Gigged: The Gig Economy, the End of the Job and the Future of Work, Random House, pp. 288

What does it mean to be a young person looking for her first job after school today? The traditional path to dignity, stability and independence that work offers is fast receding in the age of the fourth industrial revolution with the advent of automation, artificial intelligence and on-demand platform economy. Just like the industrial revolutions before, this process is redefining work and the role of workers. Unlike the industrial revolutions before, this process is evolving so rapidly that the shelf life of a new business idea, the technology that drives it and the organizational structure that supports it is morphing in a matter of days. Great wealth is made in a few years and great losses too.

Such upheaval piles an unprecedented amount of risk and insecurity on the shoulders of workers who are taking the mantle of independent contractors, freelancers, consultants, temporary, contractual and part-time workers. When a large number of jobs informalize, the scope of worker rights diminishes. Financial and income security are traded for the much advertised ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ that the changing nature of work poses. Naturally, venture capital interest is substantially geared towards those ideas like that of Uber that has minimum infrastructure and maximum revenue potential.

This is the world of gig. Sarah Kessler does a fantastic job of taking us on a tour de force of the new world order. She does this through the voice of employers, workers, and tech entrepreneurs who make up this space. She traces the idea of work and wealth historically and places it against the rapidly collapsing first decade of the twenty first century world of work. She brings out the contradictions of the arguments that justify gigging the economy, and the concerns that embed it. She talks freely and frankly to people dreaming of opportunities and those struggling to make the ends meet. She observes, comments and fills the gap of their narrative with details and view points that presents a compelling perspective.

This is a fine introduction to anyone who wants to understand the nature and scope of the gig economy. Kessler is a tech blogger, tenacious researcher and compelling storyteller. Equally accessible to a specialist and novice, this book lays bare the essentials of a complex economic system through lucid prose. Befittingly, the biggest endorsement of the book comes on its front cover from none other than the master economist narrator and Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang! If you loved ’23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism’ by Chang, you could read this book as ‘a few important things they don’t tell you about the gig economy’. Exciting read!

Friday, 3 April 2020

Walk the Talk

Carmine Gallo (2014). Talk like TED: The Nine Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, Pan Macmillan, pp.278

As the flu darkens our horizon, what we need more than ever is a constructive way to spend time in confinement. The perfect book that can comfort and enlighten us through these times is either the good old classic that reminds us of things we mastered once or a manual that enables us to learn something new.

This month’s book is an engaging version of the second kind. ‘Talk like TED’ explores the question, what makes great speeches and how you can deliver one. Author and former CNN correspondent Carmine Gallo rummages through 150 hours of over 500 TED talks to find patterns that make speeches unforgettable and inspiring. He deconstructs the actual performance of the speech, interviews good speakers, and researches ideas from psychology and neuroscience to understand what makes modern oratory tick.

Making Hearts Sing

Gallo argues that all good speeches have three qualities- they are emotional, novel, and memorable. The emotional component of a good speech is delivered because of the passion of the speaker. What makes your heart sing is something that is intensely meaningful to you that forms the core of your personality. Only such great passion can elevate the hearts of others. Whilst thinking of a theme, the first thing to introspect is what inspires you.

The second quality, novelty is not the easiest aspect to bring into your speech in the age of information. Gallo argues that novelty need not be new information, but new ways of presentation. All good speeches (and definitely TED talks) had jaw dropping moments - be it jokes, anecdotes, props or visual aid. The reason novelty is such a powerful pull factor is because learning activates dopamine production in our brains, giving us the same kind of excitement that gambling does!

Finally, the third quality that Gallo discusses is ‘being memorable’. This aspect is cultivated through relentless practice.  Intense repetition of an act not only improves our confidence and timing, but opens new pathways in the brain that reacts differently to content. A pattern emerges in your presentation that links the different parts as part of a larger whole.

Both as a commentary and a manual, this book is a brief, fun, and exciting read to hone your skills at presentation. When the world opens to you again, be ready with something great!

Monday, 2 March 2020

In Search of Love

Madhuri Vijay (2019), The Far Field, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, pp. 432

Madhuri Vijay is a debutante with a compelling story. Her novel ‘The Far Field’ won the JCB prize for literature in 2019. I got hold of the book with the beautiful cover art and wonderful story telling about identity and memory in contemporary India. This story of the mother-daughter developed first as short fiction in 2010 and was subsequently developed as a novel. Vijay’s voice is tender and distinct, and is an asset throughout the narrative.

‘The Far Field’ is the story of a young woman in India who drifts away in life until a powerful memory from childhood triggered by her mother’s death, leads her on a mission to understand her past. Her journey takes her to militant Kashmir in search of a familiar face only to get entangled in an irredeemable quest. The narrator-protagonist is unreliable and vulnerable, evoking alarm and sympathy in equal measure. The anti-hero telling a story of anti-climax is essentially the essence of the tale, although there are layers and depths to explore.

Echoes and Mirages

One device that Vijay uses masterfully is the ‘echo’. There is a constant reverberation between childhood and adulthood, Bangalore and Kashmir, mother and daughter, that gives us the feeling of shifting time, space and gaze. This is a great narrative device to show comparison, contrast and the manner in which arcs end and cycles come to pass. In many ways, the daughter avenges her mother’s death but the brooding, meandering valley and the story warns us of what is to come.

At another level, this is a story about the impossibility of redeeming the past and the relying on memory. What is gone is gone forever and to wade into incomplete stories is to rip apart its integrity. Memories can be mirages that lead nowhere but to further illusions. Perusing such illusions cannot but end in doom.

This is good fiction coming out of India asking the larger questions of political identities through the personal quest of love and loss. The description of bustling towns and the quiet valleys of Kashmir are evocative. The human and natural characters from the valley are portrayed with flair and compassion. The portrait of Kashmir through the silent mountain, the gurgling ravines, the vigilant cows and goats, the incessant weaving and the busy everydayness of life is on point. The light and shade, the people and the forces parallel each other in a dreadful deadlock.

As we celebrate women’s history month, a fresh voice asking us difficult but important questions is here with us.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Economics for the Future

Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo (2019). Good Economics for Hard Times, Juggernaut, New Delhi, pp.402.

Banerjee and Duflo are back with arguments for conceptualizing economics that is useful to build the future. This is the second book of the Nobel Prize winning duo (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/2019/banerjee/lecture/) and real-life economist couple after their debut ‘Poor Economics’ which was reviewed in this blog (http://thehouseofbooks.blogspot.com/search?q=Poor+Economics). The authors take on the biggest problems facing humanity today- climate change, automation, immigration, welfare and poverty- and explore how a better use of economists’ frame can help solve them. Armed with data, case studies, relentless humour and tender feeling, this work is rigorous as it is humane.

Critique of Economics

The book begins with a frank critique of economics as it is practiced today. Economists come in for a fair share of brickbats for their obsession with economic growth as the ultimate yardstick of good policy making, the method of trade liberalization as a means to achieve them, the unwillingness to move from assumptions of rational economic choices and the inability to connect with the larger public on issues that impact the average person. Crouched under the complexities of fallacious assumptions, mathematical modelling, and inept communication, economists have created a wide gulf between themselves and the rest of the world. Banerjee and Duflo argue that continuing along these traditions is unhelpful as it is unethical. They call for an approach that uses realistic assumptions and make bare the caveat emptor rather than continuing with misleading simplistic versions of the world.

Analysis of Issues

One of the biggest takeaways from this book is the way the authors examine some of the pressing issues today by presenting deliberate questions that challenge commonly held assumptions. For example, all over the world there is a surge of fear against immigrants as arguments abound that they reduce chances of employment and welfare of others. The authors examine immigration both from historical data and theoretical assumptions to bring out what happens to the local economy when groups of a particular skill-set immigrate? Who wins and who loses and what is the long-term impact? The nuances in their reasoning give clear pointers as to how the problems could be solved. The authors caution that careful intervention, not outright prohibition is the way forward.  Similarly, other issues such as automation, welfare and climate change are dissected with reasoned arguments and empirical evidence.

Banerjee and Duflo are known for writing eminently readable books which provoke our thinking and arouse our feeling towards action. They do not disappoint this time. Their canvas is bigger with better challenges to tackle head-on! A great book to begin your year and decade!