Black Box Thinking: Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes – But Some Do by Matthew Syed

Black Box

The bestselling author of “Bounce” once again mesmerises with his new and insightful work. Drawing upon real life experiences, the author holds forth on the harmful consequences of disregarding and scuppering failure instead of learning and leveraging from them. Citing the examples of Airline Industries, where each failure/disaster is meticulously analysed with a fine-toothed comb, and the results disseminated to concerned airline personnel across the globe (with a view to obviating calamitous recurrences), Matthew Syed makes a case for celebrating (if not extolling) failures, with a power objective of gaining insights from mishaps.

The healthcare sector, where some of the most acclaimed doctors suffer from the popularly known “God Complex”, is ripe for redefining failure and being transparent about it. Once such a courageous step is taken, the results can be transforming. This was evidenced in no small detail by the Virginia Mason Healthcare Centre where mistakes were openly acknowledged and mitigating responses instituted.

The book scores the most in illustrating some genuinely inspiring stories such as the endeavours of James Dyson (of the “Dyson” appliances fame), who had to go through more than 5,000 iterations before coming up with a revolutionary vacuum cleaner and the Mercedes Formula 1 team whose technical analysts pore over thousands and thousands of technical data seeking to make “marginal gains” in their performance. While James Dyson has gone on to accumulate a net wealth in excess of US$3 million, team Mercedes have, at the time of writing bagged their second consecutive drivers’ as well as Constructors’ Championship Titles.

The Chapters dealing with Cognitive Dissonance and Narrative Fallacy make for some riveting reading. There is a great opportunity to be gained from absorbing, assimilating and emulating some of the techniques and tenets postulated in this book.

“Black Box Thinking” – Thought provoking!

Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life by Leonard Mlodinow


When Leonard Mlodinow is offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (“Caltech”), he is besides himself with ecstasy. However the enthusiasm swiftly wanes out as the young student is racked by feelings of insecurity and plagued by the fear of failure. Caltech after all was the Institute, whose hallowed portals lent hospitality to twenty Nobel Laureates. When Mlodinow is at the nadir of his doubtful professional existence, he realizes, by chance, that his office is flanked on both sides by the working environs of two Nobel Prize winning Physicists, Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman, arguably the greatest theoretical physicist post Albert Einstein (he was popularly referred to as the “Einstein” of “our” times by his admirers) is held in awe and reverence by his peers (excepting Murray Gell-Mann) and students alike. It is to Feynman that Mlodinow elects to approach and pour out his insecurities. There is however a small hitch – Feynman is dying courtesy a very rare form of cancer. He has very limited time left to handhold a novice through his time of turbulence.

This beautiful book is the outcome of a series of interactions between a rookie aspirant and an incomparable master at the pedestal of his powers. The terminally ill Feynman, acerbic at times and affectionate at others, imparts to Mlodinow valuable lessons not only concerning Physics but also revolving around life in general. A particular passage where Feynman stands in studied silence admiring a rainbow when Mlodinow joins him warms the cockles of the reader’s heart.

After a courageous battle with the scourge of cancer, Feynman finaly succumbed on the 15th of February, 1988. But his tutelage of Mlodinow was more or less complete as the dutiful student not only received his Doctorate from Caltech but also went on to more famous endeavours collaborating with the likes of Stephen Hawking and during the process, writing a couple of bestsellers as well.

Feynman’s Rainbow – A multi-couloured moving paean to one man’s life, legacy and legend.

Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog: Life Advice For The Imperfect Human by Dan Ariely


One of the most entertaining and endearing social scientists and behavioural economists gracing the field today, Dan Ariely decided to commence a column imaginatively titled “Ask Ariely” in the Wall Street Journal beginning 2012. This was meant to be a platform for readers to get a relief from various dilemmas plaguing their day-to-day existence, both professionally and personally.

This book is a collection of the questions posed by the readers and the solutions provided by Ariely. Ranging from the pesky (a most appropriate solution to prevent dog owners from not cleaning up after their canines) to the profound (whether a couple in their prevalent dispensation ought to have children), the problems span a wide sweep of head and heartaches. Combining a refreshing blend of astute wisdom and spontaneous wit, Professor Ariely comes up with convincing and creative answers to most of the flummoxes.

Covering a wide range of social science niggles such as “loss aversion”, “depletion”, “adaptation”, “signaling” and “political correctness”, the solutions proposed by Ariely provide a valuable insight into the window of human psychology and cultural mores. The suggestions are also amenable for practical experimentation and unbiased judgments based on resulting outcomes.

“Behavioural Science….” – time to rethink life!

Who Am I?: The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi


Carl Gustav Jung described Shri Ramana Maharishi to be a “modern Indian Prophet who exemplified so impressively the problem of psychic transformation”. The teachings of this Enlightened saint have pervaded the globe and has influenced scores of people, both devotees as well as non-devotees. This small collection contains within its fold, answers to twenty-eight questions posed to the Maharishi in 1902 by an intrepid student of Philosophy, Mr.Sivaprakasam Pillai.

The questions all revolve around and hone in on the extinction of ego and Enlightenment of and about the soul. The path towards transformation from the sense and self oriented to the detached and divine is set out in a most simplistic and understandable manner. However do not let the simplicity detract from the arduous profundity of the actual task of transformation!

“Who Am I?” – Genuinely worth introspecting!

Opportunities: A Handbook of Business Opportunity Search by Edward de Bono


The pioneer of Lateral and Parallel Thinking, Edward De Bono in this handbook, provides practical and radical steps to institutionalise the procedure of ‘Opportunity Search’ within an organisation. The book itself is divided into three sequential parts (even though the reader has the luxury of choosing to directly move to the third part post completing the first).

The first part deals with the attitude of different types of leaders (train driver leader; farmer leader, fisherman leader etc). De Bono goes on to identify the various blockers that create distinctive hurdles in engaging in search for opportunities in these leaders.

The Second Part serves as a practical manual for institutionalising opportunity search. Establishment of an Opportunity Audit team, creating a stand alone Opportunity Manager position and the periodic conduct of an Opportunity Audit are some of the mechanisms proposed by the author.

The Third Part, using a blend of symbols and check lists professes to be a goading instrument in nudging the readers to optimise the process of opportunity search. Radical ideas such as ‘provocation’; ‘wishful thinking’; ‘stepping stones’ etc are laid down for enabling a dedicated and thorough search for both short term and long term opportunities.

“Opportunities” – Makes sense to grab with both hands!


Light is the very source of human sustenance. The rudimentary albeit fascinating process of photosynthesis which is inevitable for mankind’s survival is totally dependent upon light. Right from the evolution of humanity, the concept of light has possessed an allure encompassing within it material degrees of both romanticism and mysticism in equal measure.

In this immensely readable and intensely engaging work, Brian Clegg by shaking away the cobwebs of scientific jargon and dispelling the terrors of fear inducing equations, provides a glowing overview of the anatomy, utility and the meaning of light. Tracing the history of human fascination for the study of light, Clegg commences with the exploits of Empidocles and Aristole before navigating a roller coaster of a path (spanning hundreds of years) that ends at the door step of frightening future possibilities, just one of which represents “Quantum Cloning”. On the way he introduces the eager reader to many an indefatigable personality embodying inexhaustible patience and dedication, whose rigours have ensured that we have a better and grateful understanding of the world that we inhabit.

From the serene meadows of Woolsthorpe where Sir Issac Newton unraveled the mysteries of gravity, to an obscure Patent Office in Bern where the genius of Albert Einstein revealed the stunning and mind numbing facets of general and special relativity, Brian Clegg handholds us through the maze of reflection and refraction, helps us hurdle over the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of particle and wave theories, never deserting us when we arrive at a weird world characterised by the interplay of electromagnetism and the entanglement of Photons.

The most significant value addition of this book lies in its ability to impart esoteric concepts in elementary language. Whether it be describing James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday’s jousts with electromagnetism or the rift between Newton and Christiaan Huygens as to whether light is composed of particles or waves, the author takes great care to ensure that the reader is not ensnared or entangled in a trap of convoluted Physics. The Chapter on Richard Feynman is one of the best in the whole book if not the best.

“Light Years” – Sheds abundant lustre!

Human Universe (Wonders of Brian Cox #4) by Brian Cox, Andrew Cohen


We, as a humanity have made an extraordinary and epochal transformation from ‘ape-man to space-man’ (in Professor Brian Cox’s own words). But how did this stupendous change take place? What significant events occurred that made such a breathtaking evolution a reality?

Questions such as these are the preserve of “Human Universe”. Professor Brian Cox and co-author Andrew Cohen go back in time and also in space to chart out the wonderful path of human evolution from primate to astronaut. During the course of traversing this long and fascinating path, they also acquaint the reader with heroic individuals whose indefatigable passion to the Sciences shed precious Light into the formation of mankind.

While the book on the whole is extremely illuminating and at places, even profound, there is no doubt that some of the chapters could have been made more simpler instead of being shrouded in technological esoterica. For example, the passages dealing with Yukawa Couplings, Gluons, and Quantum Physics challenge the intellect and endurance of the reader no end and a layman might well be forgiven for giving up in unavoidable exasperation!

On the whole this is a book worth reading and more importantly worth possessing. It acts as a trusted springboard for all those desiring to whet their appetite on a dose of Human Evolution and an understanding of the Universe.

“Human Universe” – Ought to be universally recommended.

Grey Mountain by John Grisham


Samantha Kofer’s world, one fine day, turns upside down. The 29 year old high flying associate in the world’s largest Law Firm gets a rude jolt, when consequent to the fall of Lehmann Brothers and the resulting financial crisis, she is placed on ‘furlough’. Samantha has to work as a volunteering intern (sans pay) for a period of 12 months before her former employer reverts with a possibility (howsoever faint) of offering her a job at the firm.

Post receiving refusals from a whole horde of non-profits, Samantha finally lands a position at “Legal Aid Clinic” a non-profit legal firm at Bray, Virginia. Nestled amongst the azure and serene setting of the Appalachian Mountains, Samantha expects to fulfill her role in a sedate and silent manner before scurrying back to Manhattan.

The Legal Aid Clinic is run by a feisty group of women led by the ebullient Mattie Wyatt, aided ably by Annette. Their portfolio of cases range from domestic violence to preparation of wills. However an important segment of their clientele represents the many unfortunate coal workers/miners suffering from the fatal black lung disease as a result of a sustained and prolonged exposure to coal dust.

When Samantha gets acquainted with Donovan Gray, an aggressive lawyer and nephew of Mattie whose single handed objective seems to be taking on the cartel of the coal mining companies and their lawyers, things take a grave turn. Brady is no longer the tranquil, timid and scenic place of bliss that is seemed to at first!

“Grey Mountain” – Heights of capitalistic greed and deceit

The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth

Kill List

The Master of his genre is back again and how! In this taut-nerved, spine tingling page turner, Frederick Forsyth enthralls us all (yet again) with a thrilling piece of original story telling. A spate of suicide killings targeting eminent personalities both in the USA and the UK leads intelligence agencies to an elusive but dangerous terrorist who is known simply as “The Preacher”. The title is a euphemism for the radical sermons dripping with hate delivered online from an undisclosed location which has the evil impact of radically transforming otherwise docile people and consequently making them commit acts of pure and perceived vengeance.

The United States Intelligence service has a list known as “The Kill List”. Privy only to the eyes of a handful of individuals this list consists of some of the most wanted terrorists deemed to be harmful to the interests of the United States. The elimination of these wanted men is authorised directly by the President of the United States. In no time, as could be expected the Preacher finds himself at the top rung of this hit-list.The job of assassinating the Preacher is handed over to a US Marine going by the imaginative name of “The Tracker”. The Tracker’s identity is concealed and his existence barely known.

As The Preacher carries on with his hate campaign in unrelenting fashion, The Tracker must leave no stone unturned in his mission of tracking, finding and killing the nemesis of the United States. The journey of the Tracker takes us to the official settings of the MI5 in England to the pitiful sub-human conditions of Mogadishu, with detours at dark alleyways in Karachi and sprawling hotels at Dubai. The narrative is fascinating and the plot addictive. This is a book that has to be devoured in one long, undisturbed, tense, enjoyable, suspenseful, single sitting. Precisely what yours truly did!

“The Kill List” – Marked for the bestseller charts!

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly


In this hugely engrossing work, one of the most cited prolific researchers in the domain of Economics, William Easterly opens up the perception of the reader to what he terms “The Tyranny of Experts”, a technocrat driven path towards enhancing development standards and the general well being of the world. In a manner that is audacious yet not overtly polemic, Easterly brings his vast repertoire of research methodologies to bear as he identifies the following ‘three’ flawed pillars surrounding Development Economics and influencing its practitioners currently:

Believing in a ‘Blank Slate’or Tabula Rasa approach instead of learning from History;
Emphasising too much on the development of nations at the cost of the enrichment of the individual (whereby the individual is deprived of both economic as well as political freedom); and
Devising conscious designs rather than paying heed to spontaneous solutions.

The book begins with a riveting Chapter on the contradictory views on development nursed by two prominent and legendary economists – Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal. Although the two economists received the Nobel Prize jointly in 1974, their views on development were diametrically opposed to one another. While Hayek was a firm proponent of spontaneous solutions and learning from History, Myrdal was a champion of the Blank Slate approach and had an unwavering belief in conscious design.

Easterly proceeds to elucidate each of the pillars that he deems to be antithetical to growth by setting out empirical evidence, case studies and historical facts. Going way back into history, Easterly relieves the practices adopted by the Maghrib tribes, the colonisation and subsequent liberation of Africa and the rise of communist China to weave an intricate network of reason, logic and convictions.

While one might not be entirely comfortable with some of the postulations set out in this book, there can be no denying it that this makes an essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in the Economic, Political and Cultural travails plaguing the world today.

“The Tyranny of Experts” – A timely reminder at introspection