The Kobalt Dossier: Eric Van Lustbader

The Kobalt Dossier | Eric Van Lustbader | Macmillan

While Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook might have moved away from the credo of ‘moving fast and breaking things’, characters in Eric Van Lustbader’ s latest edge of the seat thriller seem to possess no such inhibitions. Solely operating under the philosophy of ‘move fast, break bones and rip throats’, a deadly mix of downright dangerous human beings ranging from the bold to the barbarian combine to dish out a veritable feast for the afficionados of the genre of thrillers.

Evan Ryder, a field agent for a black-ops arm of the Department of Defense is taking a much deserved break in the islands of Sumatra after an exacting and deadly operation, when the world around her threatens to collapse with sudden intensity. She is forced to cut short her vacation after learning that her niece Wendy and nephew Michael have been abducted from the United States. There is absolutely no clue about the abductors since they seem to have disappeared like an evening mist. But not before neatly decapitating, the children’s father and stuffing a message inside his mouth. Evan realises with a sense of utter dread that this method of cold blooded killing is the calling card of a psychotic group calling itself Omega. Putting even the dastardly eugenics of Nazism to utter shame, Omega is a cult that is convinced that there is a need for a ‘global purge’ if mankind has to revert to the values and ideals propagated by Christianity. Ana, the demented head of Omega thinks herself as the contemporary Noah within whose Ark only the true believers would need to assemble while the rest ought to be put to the sword – literally.

In addition to contending with Omega, Evan also faces a new and extraordinarily dangerous predicament in the form of ‘Kobalt’ a ruthless and merciless cold blooded murderer under the employ of an ultra-secretive Russian intelligence arm. Deep within the bowels of the agency known as SVR of the FSB, there exists a Directorate termed ‘52123’. Embodying mythical hues and mystical colours, 52123 is a black hole even for a predominant part of the formidable Russian intelligence. Known only as ‘Zaslon’, the members of this outfit operate like the shadows of the night. Different from the spetsnaz, which is akin to the American Special Forces, Zaslon operatives are employed to execute ‘high-stealth’ operations.

As Evan and her longtime partner-in-crime, Benjamin Butler go about the arduous and deadly task of rescuing the kidnapped children, insurmountable obstacles manifest with a frequency that is discomfiting. The mission puts every single skill and technique gleaned and perfected by the duo over their professional career to the ultimate test. Every ally can be a suspect and a foe may yet turn out to be an unexpected, albeit welcome ally.

“The Kobalt Dossier” takes the reader on a roller coaster ride across continents. Beginning with a prosaic series of events that unfurl in South Dakota, the adventures of Evan Ryder and Kobalt pick up steam on the shady streets of Moscow, gather momentum in the teeming and throbbing markets of Istanbul, picking up vital pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in the verdant settings of Koln in Germany before finally culminating in a cataclysmic crescendo in the high mountains of Carpathia in Romania. As Benjamin Butler aptly reminisces in one of the passages in the book, the Carpathian mountains constitute the abode and haven of Dracula.

A one sitting read, as is the case with all the exciting novels emanating from the Lustbader stable, “The Kobalt Dossier” makes for a rousing read. Evan Ryder fans would not be one bit disappointed with their protagonist’s exploits and endeavours. What adds an extra element of ‘variety’ to the thriller is a dose of psychological mix. In addition to flexing her muscles, Evan is also required to bring the mental and psychical side of A game to the fore as her adversary is a master manipulator of the human mind. The passages involving this psychological interplay and subterfuge make for some extremely thought provoking reading.

(The Kobalt Dossier by Eric Van Lustbader is published by Macmillan-Tor/Forge Books and will be released on the 1st of June 2021).

Ikigai and Kaizen: The Art of a Fulfilled Life – Ichiro Sato

Amazon.com: ikigai

Ichiro Sato provides a very interesting, insightful, and concise primer on the concepts of “Ikigai” and “Kaizen” and also articulates how everyone of us can exploit these concepts in our daily lives to attain a great degree of fulfilment and calm. Deriving inspiration from his nonagenarian grandparents who imbued Ikigai every day of their lives, Sato urges his readers to follow the example set by the couple. Professor John Creighton Campbell of Tokyo University and the University of Michigan once famously proclaimed that Japanese were the healthiest segment of the world population. This concept was reinforced by a famous study conducted by the researcher from National Geographic, Dan Buettner. In a study on centenarians, termed “The Blue Zones“, Buettner found out that a holistic living amongst people in the region of Okinawa in Japan made them one of the rarest group of centenarians on Earth. A combination of Ikigai and Kaizen aided the Okinawans greatly in extending their health and elongating their life.

Sato informs his readers that the word “Ikigai” is the confluence of two words “Iki” which means “to live” and “gai” or “kai” which denotes “reason for being alive.” Ikigai is basically the reason why we get out of bed each morning. It defines the sense of our very purpose and existence. Ikigai can range from the prosaic to the uncomplicated. Enjoying watching the sunrise, taking the dog out for a walk, or even composing a poem even though no one reads them can suffuse a sense of Ikigai in a person. Sato states that this sense of Ikigai can be further bolstered by a combination of physical and mental exercises to be practiced on a regular basis. For example, Sato urges his readers to follow the simple Japanese principle of “Hara Hachi Bu”, a phrase which in its extreme simplicity just means “stop eating when you feel eighty percent full.” In order to regularise the habit of Hara Hachi Bu one can make conscious changes to one’s dietary habits. Eating slowly, reducing the size of serving plates and glasses, and concentrating on eating alone without allowing concentration to hover on and around electronic gadgets and tools are some of the practices that one can imbibe.

A proper practice of Ikigai is rooted in its five essential and elemental pillars, namely: small beginning; releasing oneself; sustainability and harmony; seeking joy in little things; and being in the present moment. A classic example of living in the present moment, seeking joy in little things and releasing oneself is epitomised by one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs and the oldest three Michelin-star chef, the ninety three year old Jiro Ono. This master considers Sushi as his Ikigai. In fact his one desire is to shed his mortal coils while preparing Sushi.

Sato proposes that the technique of Ikigai be bolstered by sustained and constant physical activities. Lest one be misled, physical activity does not mean subjecting oneself to a bruising regimen in the gym and coming out with six pack abdomens and bazooka biceps. The physical activities proposed by Sato are in fact mild, moderate, and hardly taxing, with the exception of certain vigorous forms of Yoga perhaps.  Since the quintessential objective of physical exercises is to invest movement in and to the body on a sustained basis, exercises such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Radio Taiso (a set of exercises that derives its title after a series of instructions received in Japan via radio during the Second World War), Qigong (exercises to regulate and control the art of breathing), are all invaluable as one goes about the concept of Ikigai.

The second part of Sato’s book deals with the concept of Kaizen. Developed by Masaaki Imai, a Japanese management consultant and organisational theorist, the term Kaizen is a confluence of two words, ‘Kai’ (change) and ‘Zen’ (good). Hence in its literal sense, Kaizen represents a ‘change for the better.’  Every student of management and an intrepid consumer of management literature would be quick to associate the concept of Kaizen with the “Toyota Way“.  By weeding out waste in the production process, the automobile giant revolutionised the manufacturing industry. Cocking a snook at the concept of ‘breakthrough innovation’, Kaizen brought about changes in an incremental, simple but steady fashion in a patient and persevering manner. Kaizen was eliminating ‘Muda’ (waste), ‘Mura’ (unevenness) and ‘Muri’ (overburden).

Similar to the Toyota Way, Sato insists that we can also imbibe the tenets and principles of Kaizen in our daily life. A continuous, unbroken, and uncompromising improvement of just 1 percent every passing day would ultimately ensure that we fulfil our goals and realise our dreams so long as they are reasonable and rational. One can also pay attention to the concept of the ‘5S’ approach devised by Hiroyuki Hirano. The 5S concept comprises of: Seiri: Meaning ‘sorting’, it stands for removal of all unnecessary items; Seiton: Systematic Arrangement that facilitates most effective and efficient recovery; Seiso: Shining or cleanliness. Items, equipment, and workstations to be kept tidy and neat at all times; Seitketsu: There needs to be ushered in a standardization in both workplaces and practices, and Shitsuke: Sustainability. Once the preceding 4S’s have been implemented that practice ought to be transformed into a self-sustaining habit and there ought to be no looking back.

Sato’s book induces a definite element of curiosity and interest in the reader to assimilate more about the concepts of Ikigai and Kaizen. I personally was more attracted to the section dealing with the former than the latter. While the Kaizen concepts, even after their extrapolation to the individual, still somehow retained an ‘industrial’ hue and ‘manufacturing’ colour, the principles pertaining to Ikigai piqued more than just an element of academic interest and general curiosity. All of eighty eight pages, “Ikigai and Kaizen: The Art of a Fulfilled Life” is a very absorbing and assimilating read that facilitates the opening of many promising portals that would lead to the inculcation of habits that are long lasting, ideal, healthy, holistic and perfectly desirable.

How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better In a Chaotic World – Dambisa Moyo

How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better in a Chaotic World eBook: Moyo,  Dambisa: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Zambian economist and bestselling author Dambisa Moyo, in her latest book, “How Boards Work”, lays out a concise ‘manifesto’ for an expedient and optimal discharge of responsibilities by Corporate Boards in an age characterised by tumultuous change and turbulent uncertainties. Unfettered movement of capital, and seamless globalization require Boards to make ‘win-lose’ strategic decisions, effectively and swiftly. The environment amidst which such decisions are required to be made is characterised by limited knowledge and significant unpredictability. This framework within which Boards execute their functions is called Knightian uncertainty after the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. While risks may be measured and managed, uncertainty is unquantifiable and thus much harder to mitigate.

Every Board, says Moyo, is bound by the duties of care and loyalty. At the nub of the principle of duty of care lies the concept that “directors must be sufficiently informed before making a decision and that board members may reasonably rely on information, opinions, and reports provided by officers of the company or outside experts.” The companion to the duty of care is the notion of the duty of loyalty. The latter “requires board members to act in good faith and in a manner that they reasonably believe is in the best interest of the company and its stockholders.”

However, the contemporaneous global situation is fraught with risks that pose significant challenges to the Board in complying with their beholden duties. Moyo identifies five such key risks that need to be factored in by every Board within their parameters of decision making: “the risk of a more siloed and protectionist world, massive changes in the investment landscape, new technological developments, the global war for talent, and, ultimately, short-termism itself.” To highlight the risk of operating in a protectionist or a ‘de-globalised’ planet, Moyo gives a very innovative example of a phenomenon called “splinternet”. A veritable threat to the currently sprawling and inextricably linked global supply chains, splinternet refers to an exacerbated fragmentation of the internet having competing platforms that are both China and US led. This technological disintegration possesses the unenviable potential to “dramatically disrupt global supply chains by eliminating centralized procurement and thereby raising costs and reducing the efficiency gained from shared global services. Furthermore, a balkanized internet promises to increase the complexity of companies’ operations and erode their ability to respond quickly to market forces. In such a world, companies will need to choose between the US and China camps or bear the costs of operating in two adversarial technological worlds, each with its own regulatory and operating standards.”

Moyo also argues for more diversity in terms of recruitment, gender equity and cultural diversity in the composition of a Board. The pressure exerted by key stakeholders such as institutional and passive investors as well as activist investors have led to companies lending more focus on societal interests such as Environment, Social and Corporate Governance. For example, in the year 2018 investing behemoth BlackRock, in tandem with other asset managers like Vanguard and Schroders, called on companies to commit themselves to a harmonised set of metrics for resolving societal and workforce issues. “The signatories to this agreement, which became known as the Embankment Project for Inclusive Capitalism, together control more than $30 trillion. Collectively, they agreed to push companies to disclose hard-to-quantify measures such as staffing, governance, and innovation, as well as societal and environmental impacts.”

Another area of contention which Moyo addresses head on relates to executive compensation. The gulf between employee/worker and executive compensation has been insidiously widening, and on a sustained basis. Inflation-adjusted CEO pay has grown 940 percent since 1978, while typical worker compensation has risen only 12 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay rose from 33 to 1 in 1980, to a peak of 376 in 2000, before lowering slightly to 276 in 2015. Moyo argues for “malus and claw back” clauses to be incorporated in executive pay contracts that would enable Boards to reclaim a portion of executive compensation in the event a company suffers on account of gross negligence or unscrupulous behaviour of any of its executives. The Chief executive of the UK housebuilder Persimmon, Jeff Fairburn faced flak in November 2018, for having pocketed a £110 million bonus. Even though the perquisite was whittled down subsequently, the public outcry persisted, and the media also castigated the company for granting such obscene bonuses.

The presence (or the lack of it) of women on corporate boards is also addressed in an insightful manner by Moyo. She reveals her own singularly unique and undesirable experience in this matter. During a shareholder’s meeting a vociferous person pointing at Moyo queried as to what exactly she was doing on the Board and what were her credentials. Incidentally, she happened to be the only woman on the Board. To his credit, the Chairman referred the questioner to the relevant extracts from the Annual Report of the company that had a complete and extensive profile of Moyo and her professional and academic achievements. As Moyo informs her readers, studies have revealed that a  gender-diverse board enhances not just the quantity of earnings, but also the quality. “In a 2016 study, Putting Gender Diversity to Work: Better Fundamentals, Less Volatility, investment-banking firm Morgan Stanley found that companies with high gender diversity display lower ROE volatility—and thus higher long-term earnings quality—over a three-year time period, relative to companies with low gender diversity.”

However, for me personally the most relevant takeaway from the book relates to the challenges a Board faces in addressing issues of social importance such as obesity, general health, and wellbeing. In fact a public private partnership to combat pernicious health issues have taken shape across geographies. For instance, several cities in the US such as Boulder, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle, have imposed a sugar or soda tax for combating obesity. From a corporation perspective, Coca-Cola has broadened its portfolio offering to include less sugary drinks. Where public policy has lagged behind, such as in addressing climate change concerns about meat production, corporates have taken the initiative to create vegan, nonmeat, and plant-based options. “Even where governments may be lagging on broad-based environmental policies, companies are imposing green initiatives to address climate concerns in their business models. Getting rid of single-use plastics, such as straws in fast-food chains, is one very targeted intervention in this drive.”

Moyo herself is on the Board of many large and reputed blue chip companies and that experience is writ large in the tenets found in her book. She was on the Board of SABMiller when the iconic beer manufacturer was taken over by Anheuser-Busch InBev in one of the largest mergers in the beer industry (the deal was valued at $100 billion). Similarly she was also responsible in steering Barrick Gold Corporation, a mining company that produces gold and copper with 16 operating sites in 13 countries, through some tough times when gold prices plunged precariously. Moyo is also a non-executive director of the oil major Chevron.

“How Boards Work” is a very useful and engaging read for all those who are interested in understanding how corporates tide over the seemingly insurmountable hurdles birthed by a VUCA world.

Altruism

Reveling in inequities and basking in vainglorious pride

The world is a divided kingdom with nowhere to hide

As lives are lost in despicable acts of wanton ignorance and intransigence

Power and politics are altars at which is sacrificed common sense

Hoping against hope for a resplendent, optimistic and new beginning

Where solidarity and reciprocity represent the new in thing.

wk 209 wanton

(Word Count: 60)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #209

The Economics of Small Things – Sudipta Sarangi

Economics of Small Things by Sudipta Sarangi

Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle coined the term ‘dismal science’ to describe the discipline of economics. It is popularly understood that the inspiration behind such a coinage was Thomas Malthus’ (an economist) dystopian prediction about a surging population always outpacing the production of food grains, and thereby resigning humanity to a perpetual cycle of poverty and adversity. However, Sudipta Sarangi, Department Head and Professor of Economics at Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), in his engaging book, “The Economics of Small Things” demonstrates that the field of economics need not be dismal in either its literal, symbolic, or figurative sense. By illustrating the application of economics to everyday life, Sarangi juxtaposes wicked wit and wonderful wisdom to instill in his reader a curiosity and inclination towards the subject.

Choosing the most quotidian and mundane of repetitive activities that we all engage in on a routine basis, Sarangi explains popular principles of economics which informs our behaviour without our own knowledge. For example, have you ever wondered as to why your driver obstinately refuses to heed your advice to strap on his seat belt, but bows his head and mouths a silent prayer as your car passes by every roadside temple? Sarangi employs the technique of Game Theory (conceptualized and popularized by giants in the field such as John Nash, Eric Maskin, Roger Myerson, and Reinhard Selten)  to explain this paradoxical behaviour when it comes to road safety. There are three players who are involved in the game: the devout driver, the God whose blessings the driver unfailingly invokes, and the seat belt itself. Now the driver has four options at his behest: i) wear the seat belt and not pray; ii)pray, but do not strap the seat belt on; iii) do both; and iv) do neither. The second player, who is God can choose to either keep the driver safe or imperil him. Finally the creation of Swedish mechanical engineer, Nil Ivar Bohlin’s, the unassuming but vitally important seat belt. Every day the driver completes his chores on time, his faith in Providence keeps exponentially increasing, and the poor seat belt is relegated to the confines of neglect. But if only the seat belt would have been included in the Pantheon of Divinity, things would be mightily different!

Similarly why is it that all the best things manufactured in a country are designated for exports and thus consumption in another country. Why is the Alphonso variety of mangoes – considered to be the “king of mangoes” in India the only variety of mangoes from India to be stocked by outlets abroad? Enter the third law of demand initially propounded by Armen Alchian and William R. Allen. This law elucidates that sellers of mangoes would want to high quality mangoes to the US, since a kilogram of high quality mangoes works out to be the equivalent of just a few additional kilograms of low-quality equivalent mangoes.

In explaining the principle of “complementarity”, Sarangi cites the example of a trans-Scandinavian robbery. An intrepid gang of thieves in Sweden stole “designer shoes from store windows”, even though the stores only displayed “shoes meant for the left foot”. It actually turned out that the method indeed had a madness when another team belonging to the same gang was in parallel pilfering shoes meant for the right foot  from stores in neighbouring Denmark, which exhibited only shoes meant for the right foot. The robbers who were pillaging from both Sweden and Denmark before assembling pairs and selling them in the grey market were informed by the classic notion of “complementary goods”. This same concept informs the complementarity existing between “different sectors of the economy” such as “the rail, steel and coal industries”. These sectors “feed off each other”. Hence If investment in either of these sectors lags behind, “it will pull the other sectors down and the economy may experience losses”. Investing in just one or two of these sectors can “lead to wasteful expenditure, like spending money on jam but not buying the necessary amount of bread to roll it on”.

A very important and common concept in the domain of economics borders on the perils of asymmetric information. Asymmetric information refers to a state where, “both parties are not fully informed about each other.”  Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus used an ingenious but perfectly practicable technique to resolve this issue. In his micro credit financing model that involved the establishment of Bangladesh’s biggest micro financing facility, the Grameen Bank, Yunus insisted that lenders form groups of five to borrow money. It was purely in the interest of the borrower to identify and evaluate four other solvent borrowers. This exercise put a virtual end to the insidious problem of moral hazard as well. The borrower had an uncompromising incentive to ensure that his or her (most of the borrowers were enterprising but underprivileged women) compatriots keep remitting their instalments on time.

Even Mahatma Gandhi makes a fascinating appearance in Sarangi’s absorbing book. Sarangi brings the attention of his reader to an old essay by Gandhi, where he bemoans on the sheer inadequacy of the Railways in providing even a semblance of comfort to passengers being conveyed by the Third Class. But Sarangi, seeking corroboration from French civil engineer, Jules Dupuit, argues that Bapu got it wrong – for once! Driven by the logic and policies of price discrimination, cold and rational economic logic works in a tangentially different mode that is the prerogative of moral outlook. This is exactly the weapon assiduously and at times, brazenly used by manufacturers to make some people pay more for the same product.

A personal favourite of mine from the book is the imaginatively titled concept of the “Cobra Effect”. Coined by German economist Horst Siebert, the Cobra Effect postulates that a perverse incentive constitutes one that embeds an unintended result that is contrary to the intentions of its designers. For example, “apparently, worried about the number of cobras in Delhi, the British colonial government had started offering a bounty to anyone who turned in a dead cobra. The story goes that in response to this, some smart people started farming cobras. As a result, the government finally had to kill the programme.”

“The Economics of Small Things” is a riveting read that makes even the most arcane of topics seem absolutely fun filled yet instructive.

Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Michael Lewis has this gifted and almost uncanny propensity to select seemingly complex and sacrilegious topics and present them for the consumption of his readers in a breezy and mind numbing manner that would put even the best fictional thriller to utter shame. His latest “Premonition” is no exception to this unique norm. The book details the valiant exploits of an iconoclastic band of medical experts who tried to goad a hapless and haphazard United States administration to take decisive and pre-emptive steps to combat the COVID-19 pandemic when it was still in its nascent phase. A former White House colleague in the George Bush administration even termed this intrepid band, the “Wolverines.” Michael Lewis calls them “a rogue group of patriots working behind the scenes to save the country.”

The genesis behind the evolution of the Wolverines was a seminal book on the 1918 influenza pandemic, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John Barry. After reading the book, Bush realised that the United States was dearly lacking an effective plan for pandemic prevention. He tasked Rajeev Venkayya, a physician heading the Biodefense Directorate to come up with a ‘pandemic preparation plan.’ Venkayya assembled a band of unique and unconventional experts to aid him in this endeavour. He deliberately left the premier institution the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) from this exercise, having accurately assessed its probable intransigence. Driving the entire exercise was an odd couple pairing of Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher. Richard Hatchett was a doctor with a penchant for poems that caught the eye of eminent poets such as Donald Davie and Mark Jarman. He also worked the emergency rooms Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, and also the pioneer who extrapolated the concept of “Social Distancing” as an effective strategy to combat communicable diseases. Carter Mecher on the other hand, was an incorrigible son of the soil. A genius in thinking out of the box, he was also a maverick when it came to offering ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Carter fixed many problems ailing the Veteran Administration and made it into a smoothly and reliably functional health unit.

Ken Staley, who worked in Venkayya’ s bioterrorism unit, called them, “the odd couple.” “Richard played chess and quoted Borges; Carter took apart pickup trucks and put them back together. Much of what Richard loved doing could be done in a white linen suit. Much of what Carter loved doing left his hands black. Richard liked to borrow a phrase, Carter a tool. Richard was top-down—he conversed easily with the fancy academics and important policy people, and they with him. Carter was bottom-up—there was no fact, and no person, trivial enough to evade his curiosity. Richard left every classroom he entered at or near the top; Carter often just left the classroom. Carter poked fun at the way Richard walked around saying important-sounding things, like “All models are wrong; some of them are useful,” but he felt the alchemy in their interactions.”

Another Wolverine or “Wolverette”, being the only woman in the team, Charity Dean was the  former deputy director of California’s Department of Public Health. A daredevil with an uncompromising degree of integrity, Charity Dean always found herself bucking the ‘establishment’ trend. From being forced to perform an autopsy herself with a pair of garden shears instead of a saw when the official coroner backed out of fear since the deceased was a patient suffering from a virulent strain of tuberculosis, to being shut out of meetings and calls by her obdurate boss for mentioning the word “pandemic”, Dean’s professional career proceeded from one wrangle to the next.

This motley crew taking invaluable cues from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, where Philadelphia, having instituted Non Pharmaceutical Intervention measures just a week prior to the peak level of transmission, suffered twice the number of fatalities that afflicted St. Louis, which managed to get social distancing measures in place far earlier in the game, devised certain key “social distancing” measures. For instance, Mecher showed how an early closure of schools could make all the difference in the event a pandemic struck the country in future. Children enjoyed a far greater proportion of intimate, unstructured, and spontaneous social encounters than adults, and those interactions were triggers and breeding grounds for outbreaks. 

The task force faced its first challenge not during the Bush tenure but during the Presidency of Barack Obama. The year 2009 witnessed an outbreak of swine flu. Due to their previous involvement in pandemic management, Mecher and Hatchett are brought back to the White House to offer their suggestions. However the duo’s proposal of a school shutdown is rejected by a preternaturally conventional and risk averse CDC. Obama ultimately consents to the CDC. Thankfully from a crisis perspective, the outbreak turns out to be much less volatile and severe, but from a future pandemic prevention perspective, sets a very negative and discouraging trend. In Dean’s words, “the CDC — they do mental masturbation and  talk in circles for an hour and reach no decision.”

The failings and foibles of a health care system teetering on the brink of inefficiency and incompetence is highlighted in eviscerating manner by Michael Lewis. Joe DeRisi an absolute genius when it came to decoding the genome sequencing of infectious disease and a recipient of the highly touted “MacAthur Grant”, bore the full condescension of the health care system. An integral part of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, DeRisi and his team at the nonprofit lab offered hospitals COVID-19 tests for free and in a rapid manner. The hospitals refused to avail of this offer by quoting the ludicrous reason of their incapability to code their systems for a $0 test! The people manning the nonprofit lab also ordered a shipment of nasal swabs from the Strategic National Stockpile only to find to their utter chagrin that the containers all contained Q-Tips! An altruistic venture capitalist was left carrying a con can when in offering hep he procured ‘nasal swabs’, which turned out to be eyelash brushes. “There was something deeply dysfunctional about how the government worked that I never fully grasped,” De Risi said later expressing his utter exasperation. “There’s no one driving the bus. God knows what the hell is wrong with them.”

“Premonition” is a compelling David v Goliath paradigm, that centres on the inadequacies and inchoateness of public health care institutions that keeps failing the citizens repeatedly and a band of indefatigable individuals who have made it their avowed objective to right a ship that is threatening to keel over. The essence of the books is captured by a marvelous letter penned by Bill Foege, the former Director of the CDC, and a legendary figure in humanity’s combat against infectious diseases. On the 23rd of September 2020, the eighty-four year old Foege addressed the current CDC Director Robert Redfield, “I start each day thinking about the terrible burden you bear. I don’t know what I would actually do, if in your position, but I do know what I wish I would do. The first thing would be to face the truth. You and I both know that: 1) Despite the White House spin attempts, this will go down as a colossal failure of the public health system of this country. The biggest challenge in a century and we let the country down. The public health texts of the future will use this as a lesson on how not to handle an infectious disease pandemic.”…. You could upfront, acknowledge the tragedy of responding poorly,” he wrote, “apologize for what has happened and your role in acquiescing, set a course for how CDC would now lead the country if there was no political interference, give them the ability to report such interference to a neutral ombudsman, and assure them that you will defend their attempts to save this country. Don’t shy away from the fact this has been an unacceptable toll on our country. It is a slaughter and not just a political dispute . . . The White House will, of course, respond with fury. But you will have right on your side. Like Martin Luther, you can say, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.’ ”Suffice it to say neither Redfield nor the Trump administration decided to behave with dignity for its accountability to the severely affected public.

“Premonition”: Not just a book for the dystopian times that humanity is going through, but a lesson for the ages.

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be – Katy Milkman

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want  to Be by Katy Milkman

After wrestling unsuccessfully with innumerable resolutions – ranging from New Year pledges to audacious proclamations – to kick the habit of smoking, I finally decided to change tack. My father’s 80th birthday would be the defining “fresh start effect.” As an indelible gift that would both warm the cockles of his heart, and improve my health, I resolved to go cold turkey beginning that momentous occasion. At the time of this review, it has been a full three years since I last smoked a cigarette. Katy Milkman, the American economist who is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in her brilliant best seller, “How To Change”, sets out some compelling and thought provoking insights for ushering in lasting and positive change in our living. Replete with empirical research findings and corroborated outcomes, “How To Change” is an indispensable guide to anyone looking for that elusive change in her personal life or professional career.

Milkman sets the context for her book with a thrilling story revolving around legendary tennis player Andre Agassi and his revolutionary coach Brad Gilbert. Gilbert brought in an engineer’s approach to embellish the quality of Agassi’s play. “An engineer can’t design a successful structure without first carefully accounting for the forces of opposition (say, wind resistance or gravity). So engineers always attempt to solve problems by first identifying the obstacles to success.” Gilbert thus steered Agassi’s focus from trying to slam winners off every shot to maintaining a focus on his opponent’s shortcomings. This tweak resulted in an incredible transformation in the game of Agassi and led to his being acknowledged as one of the greatest of his generation.

Milkman, incidentally an engineer herself, employs the same philosophy to demonstrate how we all can make simple adjustments to our routines so as to get the best outcomes from our efforts. For example, Milkman’s research indicated that building “moments engine” – a concept that identifies when the company’s employees are likely to be open to change (say, after a promotion or a move to a new office), provides a much needed ‘nudge’ for instigating positive initiatives that would spur the employees into action, such as getting them to save more or receive their flu vaccines.

As exemplified in one of the greatest psychological experiment involving little kids and marshmallows, Austrian born American psychologist, Walter Mischel demonstrated that impulsivity or present bias – a tendency to favour immediate gratification over long term rewards can be detrimental to positive change. Milkman offers a novel and fun filled method to avoid falling into the trap of such instant temptation. Her solution – ‘temptation bundling’. One can allow oneself to indulge in one’s guilty pleasures, but only when one is pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity that one usually tends to procrastinate. For example, listening to your favourite audio book only while on the treadmill or binge watching Netflix only while doing the laundry. Temptation building can also be combined with “gamification” a tactic employed by companies in transforming something that is not a game feel more engaged and less repetitious by adding game like features, such as symbolic rewards. For example, a badge of ‘featured reviewer’ and ‘auto approved’ reviewer on the Net Galley website spurs readers to post more and more reviews thereby helping emerging authors as well.

One of my favourite chapters in the book is the one on procrastination. An inveterate procrastinator, I always put off till next week what can be done today. Milkman tackles this pernicious attribute of procrastination by offering a few practical and easily implementable tools. Inspired by the works of behavioural and other economists such as Robert Strotz, Thomas Schelling and Richard Thaler, Milkman urges us to “anticipate temptation and create constraints”. These constraints termed “commitment devices” break the cycle of procrastination. Creating a “locked” savings bank account (an account where no withdrawal is permissible until a certain level of savings is achieved) or putting money on the line that one is forced to forfeit after every infraction (for example, every cigarette smoked after taking a pledge to quit smoking will result in the depositing of a pre agreed sum of money towards a charity, preferably one which the voter does not subscribe to), will spur an individual towards tightening the strings in so far resolutions are concerned. Taking “soft pledges” also act as a psychological boost in Preventing procrastination as the one taking the pledge and making it public would not want to be seen as one who does not honour his own words.

Two of the most important revelations gleaned by me in a personal capacity after reading Milkman’s engrossing book, have been those relating to laziness and the power of advice. A very power example illustrates the potential for ‘harnessing’ our inherent default setting of laziness to foster positive outcomes. “During a routine system upgrade, an IT consultant working on the software that Penn Medicine physicians used to send prescriptions to pharmacies made a small change to the user interface: he added a new checkbox to the system. From then on, unless a physician checked that box, whatever drug they prescribed would be sent to the pharmacy as a generic. Since doctors, like the rest of us, tend to be a little lazy, they only rarely checked the box: just 2 percent of the time. As a result, Penn’s generic prescription rate shot up to 98 percent.” Penn Medicine which was once notorious for prescribing branded medicines 75 percent of the time thereby contributing to ballooning costs and insurer angst, with just a single tweak became the most avowed prescriber of generic medication.

Similarly, asking a person who is going through tough times to ‘render’ advice to another who might be going through a similar adverse phase improves decision making skills immensely. “This idea—that giving advice can be more important to your success than receiving it—was echoed by the legendary drummer Mike Mangini when he appeared on my podcast in 2019. He talked about how he developed the confidence he needed to rise to stardom. Now the lead drummer for world-famous heavy metal band Dream Theater, Mike took a path to the top that was anything but straight. He spent the 1980s as a software engineer, practicing incessantly on the drums at night and on the weekends, daydreaming of a big career in music with little hope of achieving his goal. Then something changed. When other drummers in a shared practice space unexpectedly began knocking on Mike’s door and asking him to give them lessons, their requests gave Mike a newfound confidence. If so many people thought he had a special talent, maybe he did. Mike quit his day job and devoted himself full time to drumming. Today, he’s one of the best-known drummers in the business. He attributes his success, in no small part, to being asked to give other people advice.”

“How To Change” is an extremely engrossing book that spurs its readers to action. What sets it apart from other books of its genre is the element of simplicity, practicality and most critically, implementable potentiality. I am sure innumerable lives would be transformed for the good, as a result of a serious reading of this book. “Change” is imminent!

Effortless: Make it Easier to do what matters most – Greg McKeown

Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most: McKeown, Greg:  9780593135648: Amazon.com: Books

Greg McKeown, the best-selling author of Essentialism, a refreshingly optimistic and encouraging book, has come up with his highly anticipated second work, Effortless. Even though lightning does not strike twice in this case (unfortunately so), there are some unmistakably essential and compelling takeaways that the reader is left with to reflect upon.

The book seems to have derived a major chunk of its inspiration from one of the most seminal psychological concepts, popularly termed as the “Flow’ state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian-American psychologist recognised and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. In his own words, ““a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. The core philosophy underlying Effortless also involves getting the reader into an effortless state wherein by exerting minimal and almost spontaneous efforts, maximum results are obtained.

The book is divided into three segments. The First Part deals with the notion of an ‘Effortless State’. In the words of McKeown himself, “The Effortless State is an experience many of us have had when we are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely aware, alert, present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in this moment. You are able to focus on what matters most with ease.” An effortless state is attained when the performer of a task ventures into the radical from the unconventional. Instead of wondering “why is a task so difficult”, she just introspects on “how the task could be made simpler”. This inversion principle that uses an indirect approach allows for expediting seemingly hard tasks in a simple and expeditious manner. Coupled with the inversion principle are the facets of enjoyment, release, and rest. Combining tedious and passionate tasks would greatly assist. Slowing down the hectic and unrelenting pace at which one goes about one’s daily activities would also facilitate a swift transition to an effortless state. “Discover the art of doing nothing. Do not do more today than you can completely recover from by tomorrow.”

Part II of the book holds forth on “Effortless Action.” Effortless Action, according to McKeown, is “Effortless Action means accomplishing more by trying less. You stop procrastinating and take the first obvious step. You arrive at the point of completion without overthinking. You make progress by pacing yourself rather than powering through. You overachieve without overexerting.” In order to engage in effortless action, McKeown suggests the employ of the following tools:

  • Define: More of a visualization exercise, McKeown urges us to take sixty seconds to focus on the ultimate outcome. Clearly defining what needs to be done would smoothen the process of effortless action.
  • Progress: There is no point from shying away from a task. There needs to be made a beginning. “Adopt a “zero-draft” approach and just put some words, any words, on the page.”
  • Simplify: Similar to the principles espoused by the Copenhaver Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, Leidy Klotz, McKeown emphasizes on the concept of reduction. While striving to attain a state of effortless action, the trick is to simplify and subtract. Reduce the unnecessary steps from the task portfolio.
  • Pace: There is no point in “powering through” a task asserts McKeown. “Set an effortless pace: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Reject the false economy of “powering through.”

The final part of the book, Part III, expounds on “Effortless Results.” The term “Effortless Results” is defined to mean, “You’ve continued to cultivate your Effortless State. You’ve started to take Effortless Action with clarity of objective, tiny, obvious first steps, and a consistent pace. You are achieving the results you want, more easily. But now you want those results to continue to flow to you, again and again, with as little additional effort as possible. You are ready to achieve Effortless Results.”

Effortless Results thus are results or outcomes that steadily, incrementally, and automatically keep flowing without there being a need for a tedious and cumbersome effort. The individual attains a level of expertise and traction which ensures that she need not put in unnecessary efforts to obtain the requisite results, every single time.

In order for effortless results to bear fruition the following attributes ought to be inculcated:

  • Learn: Instead of getting inundated with facts and getting bogged down by methods, it would be appropriate to assimilate principles. “Understand first principles deeply and then apply them again and again.”
  • Lift: Quite Archimedean in its notion, lift implies adopting the method of teaching as a lever for harnessing strengths.  This also results in creating a sustainable talent bank. “Live what you teach, and notice how much you learn. Tell stories that are easily understood and repeated.”
  • Automate: This simply means taking the high-tech path for the essential and the low-tech path for the nonessential. Do not try to automate what does not work and do not physically spend time working on stuff that you can easily automate.
  • Trust: “Follow the Three I’s Rule: hire people with integrity, intelligence, and initiative. Design high-trust agreements to clarify results, roles, rules, resources, and rewards.”
  • Prevent: “Don’t just manage the problem. Solve it before it happens. Seek simple actions today that can prevent complications tomorrow. Invest two minutes of effort once to end recurring frustrations. Catch mistakes before they happen; measure twice, so you only have to cut once.”

While Effortless is sans any semblance of doubt an invigorating, enthralling and absorbing book, it lacks the ingenuity and value addition that Essentialism embedded within its ambit. But as reiterated in the preceding paragraphs, Effortless sincerely attempts to bestow upon its readers the gift of sustained positive outcomes by providing various handy tools which through constant practice can effectively be transformed into a veritable habit. On this count, it makes for a very satisfying and contended read.

Breaking The Social Media Prism: How To Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing – Chris Bail

Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing:  Bail, Chris: 9780691203423: Amazon.com: Books

Shattering popular myths and in the process, uncovering some extraordinary revelations, Chris Bail’s enormously influential book, “Breaking The Social Media Prism” is a much needed antidote in, and, for bewildering times where fake news proliferates and political polarization runs amok on various social media platforms. People hurl abuse and vitriol in 280 characters at one another, and are even ready to severe painstakingly nurtured family ties just to keep alive the embers stoking their flaming ideologies. In fact, economists Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla after tracking the average length of time people spent at Thanksgiving dinner several weeks after the divisive 2016 presidential election found that Thanksgiving dinners were 30–50 minutes shorter if they were attended by a mix of people from Republican- and Democratic-leaning voting precincts. Bail is a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, and also the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke. Engaged in the study of ‘computational social science’, Bail and his team conduct studies on online political behavior. Some of the findings thrown up by their research is, putting it mildly, jaw dropping.

For example, the concept of ‘echo-chambers’ is most touted to be at the centre of all internet prejudices and biases that lead to online extremism. Hence the exhortations by social media experts for users to ‘step out of their echo-chambers.’ But what is it that exactly happens to/with a user when she does indeed step out of her echo-chamber? In a curious experiment, Bail and his team persuaded a randomly selected cohort of Republicans and Democrats to persistently listen to the views of their opponents. This was with an objective to ascertain changes in attitude towards opposing factions. The outcome of the experiment revealed an unfortunate trajectory. People who were even moderately conservative became staunchly conservative and mild libertarians became more entrenched in their dogmas.

As Bail elucidates, the phenomenon of ‘false polarization’ exacerbates existing fissures and frictions. The term itself can be defined to mean “the tendency for people to overestimate the amount of ideological difference between themselves and people from other political parties.” For example, a national survey by the Pew Research Center from 2018 found that 55 percent of Republicans thought of the Democratic Party as “extremely liberal” while a little over a third of Democrats described the GOP as “extremely conservative.” A close examination of the data revealed that people who relied on social media to keep abreast of current affairs were prone to substantially exaggerating the supposed ideological extremism of their opposition party members.

Further as Bail illustrates, this polarization also drags centrists further deep into hibernation mode. Alarmed and astonished by the extreme positions taken by extraordinarily aggressive people (Bail gives the example of an otherwise decent and impeccably well mannered man in real life who transforms into a filth spewing monster on social media. The man’s Twitter handle is replete with actual pictures of excrements, within each of which are placed studiously photoshopped images of prominent Democrats), these centrists shy away from expressing their valuable opinions and defer from contributing to all meaningful discourse. As Bail himself discloses, “70% of U.S. social media users never or rarely post or share about political, social issues according to this new report from Pew. A *STRONG MAJORITY* of Republicans with moderate views rarely or never post about politics.”

While Bail blames convoluted algorithms predominantly for creating a polarization effect, he argues that there is room for optimism. Bail and his team invited a random population to test out a new customized experimental social media platform called DiscussIt. The participants were informed that they would be chatting anonymously with someone else. What the participants were not informed was the fact that the invite code that given to them to access the platform paired them a member of a different political affiliation. The topics for discussion were also provided upfront such as immigration or gun control. Unlike the earlier failed experiment on echo chambers, people who used the anonymous chat app to talk about either gun control or immigration depolarized much more than people who didn’t. That effect was even stronger for Republicans.

Bail’s book is a treasure trove of details and information on seminal social science experiments. Some meriting especial mention include:

  • The discovery by sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton of the principle of homophily. The two professors—who had been studying how new media technologies were shaping political beliefs—observed that people tend to form social connections with those who are similar to themselves. “Birds of a feather flock together.”
  • German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, groundbreaking study on the role played by throbbing, teeming and vibrant salons in laying the groundwork for the systems of mass communication that emerged in the twentieth century;
  • American Sociologist Erving Goffman’s amazing discovery that we read our social environments through a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues, including facial expressions, other types of body language, and tones of voice.

Bail concludes his book by offering three practical and easily implementable “strategies” for breaking the prism of social media and its harmful refraction: “First, we can learn to see the prism and understand how it distorts our identities, as well as those of other people. Second, we can learn to see ourselves through the prism and monitor how our behavior gives the prism its power. Finally, we can learn how to break the prism by changing these behaviors and discovering how to engage in more productive conversations with the other side.”

The most refreshing aspect of Bail’s book is the opportunity that it affords the reader for engaging in introspection. Everyone who is not a Jaron Lanier, (popularly and universally acclaimed as the father of Virtual reality who is now a social media apostate and a recluse living under a rock) and hence who automatically happens to be a social media user can relate to the concepts and ideas articulated by Bail. I myself got name called in a very incendiary vein a few days ago just for posting a clarificatory remark on the page of an acquaintance. That remark was, by no stretch of imagination, either a rebuke or a reprimand. A mild riposte perhaps. Such an unexpected jibe induced a spontaneous resolve never to post on that acquaintance’s wall henceforth. But on hindsight, there might have been a better manner in which I could have conveyed my thought process, not in terms of sincerity, but in terms of subtlety at least. But in line with the hope exuded by Bail in his book, there will come another opportunity.