Tuesday, February 10, 2015

2014 book list

(Cross-posted from Medium)

I read more books in 2014 than any year before. My Caltrain commute acted as a forcing function that enabled this.
  • Here are some stats on the books I read.
  • Number of books read: 26
  • Non-fiction: 22. Fiction: 4
  • Longest book: 656 pages (Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson)
  • Shortest book: 134 pages (The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey)
  • Most common tags: Science: 9, Psychology: 4, Biography: 4

Here are all the books I read in chronological order (Bold = Recommended, *Bold = Highly recommended)
  1. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
  2. Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser
  3. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  4. The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez
  5. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  6. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
  7. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
  8. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  9. The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey
  10. An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina
  11. India Unbound by Gurcharan Das
  12. *Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  13. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman
  14. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
  15. Tenth of December by George Saunders
  16. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
  17. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  18. *Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
  19. For the Love of Physics by Walter Lewin
  20. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks
  21. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  22. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
  23. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
  24. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
  25. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
  26. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Here is the entire list on Goodreads if you are curious.

And here’s the list from 2013.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Statistics I would like to see in Cricket

Can we definitively say that Dhoni was a poor test wicketkeeper?
- Or that Ponting was a great fielder?
- Or Rohit Sharma has poor consistency which hurts his team in spite of his match winning performances?

I posted some thoughts on the statistics I would like to see calculated in cricket here: Statistics I would like to see in Cricket

Can you come up with more?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Meat Equation

I wrote this post on how to choose what to eat: "The Meat Equation". Enjoy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 book list

Here’s the list of books I read in 2013 in chronological order with a short review of each.

Bold = Recommended
*Bold = Highly recommended

  • Danziger's Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers by Nick Danzinger
  • Danzinger travels solo & often in disguise through Turkey, Iran, war-torn Afghanistan and China. Some of his adventures seem very thrilling, to the point of you questioning if they truly happened. Nevertheless, a entertaining read that tells you a lot about life in those parts of the world.

  • The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
  • Pollan dissects the American food industry, going into the roots of what we eat. It’s scary to learn about the industrialized food “generation” process and how far-removed we are from the way our ancestors ate.

  • Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Young Indian-American sociologist pals up with some of the gang members of the Chicago underworld to learn about its socio-economic impact. It’s like peeking into The Wire. It does’t go very deep into the violence & impact of the underworld, and as a result is more of a fun read.

  • *Last Chance to See - by Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine
  • Funny, yet deeply insightful. Adams & Carwardine go around the world to find endangered species. In true Douglas Adams style, he makes you laugh, but also makes you think as he talks about the impending loss of these beautiful creatures.

  • Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries  by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • A series of essays by NdGT about the cosmos. Very readable and funny. Having read similar books before, it wasn’t too educational for me, but I can imagine someone not very familiar with astronomy loving these. NdGT does seem a tad too obsessed with world-destruction scenarios.

  • *The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Not a real autobiography per se, but a collated set of writings by one of the greatest men of the 20th century. Highly recommended. I was greatly impressed by the man and the book. Read it now!

  • What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin
  • Series of articles about intolerance (racism, sexism, homophobia etc.) in sports and the athletes who fought against it. Its a good topic, but Zirin doesn't come off as a rational thinker and gives a very one-sided view of things which makes you question whatever he writes.

  • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
  • Good science fiction. At 192 pages, a quick read. The time-travel bends your mind a bit, so be prepared.

  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Foer goes from being a spectator to winning the US Memory championship in 1 year. He describes his journey and talks about how memory can be trained to remember almost anything. And you don’t have to be exceptionally smart to be a memory-guru. Delves nicely into the science of memory.

  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman by Christopher Sykes
  • Biography of the brilliant Richard Feynman. Feynman’s relentless drive to “figure things out” is amazing. I especially loved the bits about Feynman’s formative years. Feynman was a bit of a showoff though :).

  • Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood
  • John Wood’s drive and success are very commendable. The cause is definitely worth fighting for. The book does seem to be a bit of a publicity piece though.

  • The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • I expected a more autobiographical book, but it turned out more about science. Not much about NdGT's childhood and upbringing & what shaped him growing up. Having read 2 of his books, I think he's not as good a writer as Carl Sagan, but still very readable. The world needs more science “popularizers” like him.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ecuador trip - Part 3 (More Quito & Cuenca)

From the islands, we headed back to Quito. We took a walking tour of the historical district (old town) of Quito, which consists of a bunch of very old churches of different Christian orders (Franciscans, Dominicans etc.), and big plazas joined together by cobblestone streets. The architecture was pretty impressive, but the crowds and the traffic a little annoying.

There were armed guards everywhere to ensure tourist safety. The old town can get quiet and dangerous after dark, so we limited our walking activities to the daytime. We also rode up the Teleferico, which is a cable car that takes you to the top of a 13,000 ft mountain next to Quito. You get a good view of the city from up there.

From Quito, we headed down to Cuenca, which is another colonial city on the Andes. It's the 3rd largest city in Ecuador, albeit a distant 3rd. We spent a quiet couple of days in Cuenca, walking around its historic churches and cathedrals and enjoying the nice food & weather.

There were a lot less tourists here, and the vibe overall was more friendly. We stayed in a hotel where the entire staff only spoke Spanish, which lead to some fun conversations. Cuenca has a bunch of artsy places like Panama hat factories and ceramic studios, but we visited on Saturday/Sunday and most of them were closed. Cuenca was our last stop in the Ecuadorian adventure.

One thing I noticed in Quito and in Cuenca was how little of the Inca & pre-Inca heritage is still remaining. Talking to people and going around town, you would be lead to believe that the Ecuadorian history began with the Spanish. In Peru (especially Cuzco) this was pretty different. People there took pride in their Inca-past. In Ecuador, it was as if the Incas never existed.

I'll end this with a shout out to Ecuador as a tourist destination. You don't require a visa to enter the country, and they use the US dollar for currency. It's pretty tourist-friendly, and hence safe. The weather is great throughout the year. Knowing Spanish is definitely a plus, but not knowing it leads to even more memorable interactions with the locals. We had a bunch of those :).

Ecuador trip - Part 2 (Galapagos islands)

Next up was the Galapagos cruise. The next day, we took the early, 2-hop flight to Baltra airport on one of the Galapagos islands and took a raft up to our cruise: The Galapagos Legend. The Galapagos has a bunch of islands, relatively far apart from each other, so taking a cruise is the best way to visit them. A cruise also ensures that you minimize your impact on the islands & help in preservation.

The Legend is one of the few big cruises (capacity of 100 visitors), running across the Galapagos. Most ships are much smaller (17-40 passengers). We decided to go with a big ship, because more people equals more fun. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Galapagos. The service was great and the schedule was optimal. Never did we feel that we were too rushed, or too bored. We had 2 excursions a day, 1 in the morning and 1 in the evening, where we visited one of the islands.

The islands themselves were quite different than what I had imagined. I had imagined a lush, green paradise, but most of the islands were dry, barren, rocky affairs. What makes Galapagos special is not the richness of life, but rather the uniqueness of it. A lot of the species at Galapagos evolved at Galapagos and hence you wont find them anywhere else on the earth. Some of the highlights in no particular order were:

The salt-sneezing marine iguana and the magnificently colored land iguana...

The blue-footed boobies, especially their straight vertical dive into the sea...

The frigate birds and their majestic flight...

And the overall lava-created landscape...

Yes and the tortoises were great too :). But you've probably heard a lot about them already.

A surprising fact that I did not know was that Galapagos has a permanent human settlement of almost 18000 with proper villages and farms primarily on the island of Santa Cruz. The settlement was originally created by the Ecuadorian government because they wanted to assert their control on the islands and didn't want any of the mighty European countries to claim it.

As we found out, Galapagos also suffers from the influx of invasive species introduced by humans. So the national park is hard at work eliminating rats, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, non-native plants and everything else that is non-native. It seems like a huge and a very hard undertaking.

Overall, I felt that the Galapagos islands are a unique tourist destination for casual tourists. A bit on the expensive side, but worth it.

Ecuador trip - Part 1 (Quito and Otavalo)

I thought I should write about our Ecuador trip before I forget. So here it goes.

We visited Ecuador for 10 days from late August to early September. Our first stop was the capital, Quito. We reached Quito on Friday night and took a cab to our hotel: Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna. This isn't really a standard hotel. It's a 120 year old house of the owner converted into a hotel.

The owners were very friendly with us and gave us the kind of personalized service you would never get from a standard hotel. The con was that the rooms were a bit noisy, it being a wooden construction and all. But all in all a great experience.

I was surprised at first with the size of Quito. I expected the city to be like Cuzco (in Peru), but it was more like Mumbai than Cuzco. The city is narrow (2-3 miles at its widest), but very long (25 miles), which gives you the impression that the city never ends. A city this big, nestled on the slopes of the Andes, at 9500 ft above sea-level is quite a sight. The traffic and the driving patterns in Quito are somewhere in between US & Mumbai (low lane discipline, moderate honking etc.).

The next morning we headed to Otavalo which is around 2 hours north of Quito. We took a bus there. I guess the buses are run by the government, which meant the fare was really cheap, around $2.5 per person.

Otavalo is famous for it's Saturday market where local artisans sell their handicraft. It's very colorful and vibrant and Maitreyee had a lot of fun here.

We spent the night at Hacienda Cusin, which is a 17th century estate near Otavalo. The hacienda was peaceful and quiet, and pretty artsy as well.

The next morning, we visited the Condor Park which is located on a hill near overlooking Otavalo. The park has a lot of big birds: different hawks, owls & eagles and a huge condor. Twice a day they have a bird show where the trainers make the birds do their bidding. It was OK, not unlike anything you would find at other places.

We took the bus back to Quito that evening and tried to check out the "New town" of Quito. But it was Sunday and everything was closed. There were quite a few people in the parks, but everything else was pretty much dead.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mental health

I was at a middle school in Bellevue today. It's striking how there are predominantly 2 types of pamphlets on the message board there: those talking about therapists/mental health and those about domestic abuse.
This, in one of the top school districts of the the nation.

Also, check this trend out. This is from all the books scanned by Google written from 1900. It clearly tells us what people are more interested in.

Expected? Or do we take ourselves more seriously than we have to?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Social Q&A Systems

A lot of times you need answers to long or open ended questions. e.g. "How are hiking trail distances calculated?" or "Are there any places where you can watch the 4th of July fireworks over Lake Union while avoiding the crowds? " or "Any good popular science book recommendations?" (all questions which I've had in the past).

Current search engines don't do great for these queries, since they search by keywords aim for speed. But there are a lot of Q&A systems such as Yahoo Answers, Quora etc. out there which are meant to help you with these. Having tried out a few over the past 2-3 years, here is a rundown on them:

Yahoo Answers

Pros: Lots of users, has been around for a long time.

Cons: Not really useful for genuine questions. Funny/not so useful answers tend to be voted up.

Yahoo Answers is a good example of "what doesn’t work".

Twitter/Facebook status messages

Pros: Asks questions to your friends. Decent search capability.

Cons: Asks questions to your friends, which for most people is a limited set of folks with little or no subject expertise.


Pros: Focuses of collaboration. Almost wiki-like

Cons: No user-reputation system makes answering questions less gratifying. New and hence not many users.


Pros: Asks questions to topic experts as determined by their internal algorithms.

Cons: Not as many users. A lot of questions go unanswered. No reputation system.

Facebook Questions

Pros: Lots of users. Uses the social graph information for question discovery.

Cons: No reputation system. Very poor search functionality.

Stack Exchange websites (e.g. StackOverflow)

Pros: Very detailed reputation/badge system which incentivizes people to give good & thorough answers to questions. Decent search functionality.

Cons: Niche set of websites for specific topics like programming, hence not generic. Not many users because of being niche websites.

So based of these experiences, here is what I think will make an ideal Q&A system:

1. Has a lot of active users

2. Has a reputation system which incentivizes good "answerers".

3. Easy to use, via Desktop/Phone/IM.

4. All the questions and answers are well-tagged and easily searchable.

5. Seeks out topic experts for answering questions.

6. Has a social element (people prefer answering questions from their friends instead of random strangers), but does not overdo it (since you might want real experts a lot of times).

Points 2, 3, 4 are achievable design goals for a startup. 1, 5 and 6 are much harder since you need a critical mass of users to achieve them, which would be tough for a startup to achieve. So it has to come from one of the big players. Or a startup bought over by a big player (Aardvark was bought by Google recently). That said, Facebook seems to be best positioned to build such a system if they wish to. Yes, it's Facebook's world, we just live in it.