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Reading goals: Lessons from the pandemic

Wrapping up the series of posts on my reading, I want to take a moment to talk about reading goals. I love these, as any reader of this blog will know. I am constantly setting goals for myself. And, I am now much more successful of achieving them than previously. My personal best was a 142 books one year although that year I read more in one genre with small books. How did this happen? How did I go from reading about 50 or 80 books to reading over 100 books a year?

  1. Reading faster. The older I get, the faster I tend to read. This could be because I now know more words than when I was younger. It also could be because as a writer myself, I am more familiar with the process of writing for an audience. Thirdly, I have an understanding of which sections to skim through, which to savor, which to skip completely. The latter is of course a personal choice. I used to never skip a word and now I will happily skip entire sections. Also, the sections I skip will be different from what someone else skips because my interests are different.
  2. Choosing the books I want to read. I have always had trouble with this. I want to read every single book out there. But, of course, I cannot. So, (with the help of my friends) I have now learnt to pick and choose. I have a friend who always tells me to let go of a book if it is bad. She hates to see me struggle with “bad” books/boring books. I think she came close to throwing out a massive Leonardo da Vinci biography I was reading because I was struggling so hard with it. Thanks, VN! 🙂
  3. Streamlining my reading. This is a tip I learnt over time and have used before, but most forcibly through another friend who reads as much as I do. He subtly nudged me towards reading in themes. This is funny because I don’t think he realized he was doing it any more than I did. I used to read in genres before, just like he continues to do. But after we started talking about books, I found myself dividing my reading according to themes (those mentioned in this series) and reading about 5 books on the same theme one after the other. This has helped immensely because my understanding of the subject matter became so much more. For example, I now understand development economics in greater depth than previously.

These are what worked for me in the past few months. What has worked for you? Do you have specific ways that work for you? I would like to hear from you about how you navigated the pandemic lock-down and read more.

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Reading during the pandemic: Category 6

Philosophy

I was really looking forward to this category. I love reading about philosophers (to the extent that I have an excel sheet that lists philosophers from ancient Greece, China, and India to now). However, I did not manage to read much in this area. I have started three books but did not finish them. Why? They are long and they are meaty. So, I need to give more time and energy than I had available at the time. The one book I finished is discussed below.

Introducing Rousseau by Dave Robinson (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Introducing-Rousseau-Graphic-Dave-Robinson/dp/1848312121)

I love this graphic introduction series and am constantly adding more to my collection. I started with Descartes so the bar was quite high, and I had high hopes for Rousseau (mostly because I had been quoting him for so many years) and for the book because it is by the same author. I don’t know if I would say this book achieved it completely but it did not fail either. It falls very comfortably in the middle in any rating system. I liked the graphics and I loved the editorial comments of the artist. But, there were times when the content was a miss rather than a hit. The writing was good in most places, could use a little simplicity in other places, and could be better in the rest. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in reading about philosophers (and I have done so) but with the above caveat. It does not read as fast (or as engagingly) as the one on Descartes (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Introducing-Descartes-Graphic-Dave-Robinson/dp/1848311729).

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Reading during the pandemic: Category 5

Self-help and development

In this category, I had some books that did not work for me. I like reading books that can help me be better but sadly, the lot from this time was disappointing.

No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline by Brian Tracy (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/No-Excuses-Self-Discipline-Brian-Tracy/dp/1593156324)

I like self-help books but this was just not my cup of tea. It seemed disjointed and a bit repetitive. It added little to my understanding, but that might just be me. Since I have gone through many similar books in the last two months, I might not be the best person to judge this

Think: Why You Should Question Everything by Guy P. Harrison (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Think-Why-Should-Question-Everything/dp/1616148071)

Yes, think! This book was not worth my time! If he wanted me to think more, he should have given better proof. I love science and rational thinking, but when the author tries to hit me over the head with his ideas, and the same three ideas at that, my interest in the book dies. So, if you are a writer, make sure that you have your facts straight, have more than three talking points, and don’t treat the reader like an idiot.

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Reading during the pandemic: Category 4

Fiction (and one memoir)

I am part of a book club (Tuesday night book club, Colombo) so, I am now getting my fiction fix mostly through this club. However, the following shows both book club picks and my personal picks (and a memoir!)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Underground-Railroad-Pulitzer-Winner-National/dp/0385542364)

This was the book of the month at my Book Club last month. I read it quite fast so I may have missed somethings, but I did not actually like the general book. I did not enjoy the jumping back and forth between narrative voices and the order in which the chapters are divided between the characters. I don’t want to spoil the book so I won’t go into much detail, but I came away from it quite disappointed.

La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pulman (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Dust-Belle-Sauvage/dp/0375815309)

I loved the Golden Compass/Northern Lights, but this book did not hold my attention in the same way. I feel like some sections could have been reduced or removed for better reading flow. I liked that it set the scene for the Golden Compass/Northern Lights but I felt like it tried too hard. But I shall reserve my judgement till I read the rest of the books.

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Julie-Julia-Recipes-Apartment-Kitchen-ebook/dp/B000FCKHA6/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Julie+and+Julia%3A+365+Days%2C+524+Recipes%2C+1+Tiny+Apartment+Kitchen+by+Julie+Powell&qid=1592004640&s=books&sr=1-1)

Ok, this is a memoir and not fiction although there are fictionalized elements. But I am adding it here because it reads like fiction.

This book was a personal disappointment. I loved the movie and was thrilled that a book existed. It was on my TBR for so long. And then I read it and I was not moved in the way I was with the movie. The movie had a magic that the book did not produce for me. Also, preferring to be a vegetarian, I could not connect much to the meat sections. I wish she had done more vegetable dishes that I could try out. I have no problem whatsoever with the meat dishes, they sound great, but where are the dishes for us?

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Reading during the pandemic: Category 3

Economics

In this category, I had some great books (and some not so great ones). Economics is a pet subject of mine, so I had been looking to get my teeth into these for a while. Below, I mention four of the many books I read. Three of them are similar, and the other is a book less directly connected to those three.

Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Poor-Economics-Radical-Rethinking-Poverty/dp/1610390938)

I had been reading some books on economics so I had read about this book before I read it. Anand’s book, mentioned in this post, gave me my first introduction to the projects that Banerjee mentions. I enjoyed reading this book although some sections I skipped because I already knew the project. The writing is fun to read and wasn’t too heavy. I wish I had read this first though to enjoy it better.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Winners-Take-All-Charade-Changing/dp/0451493249)

This book, as mentioned, detailed some of the work done by Banerjee and his team. It also, in a very conversational tone, gave many instances of where the rich are donating for the poor but explains why this is not as beneficial or as helpful as we think. He details how businesses and the affluent work and think when they make their donations. Drawing from many projects around the world, he proposes an interesting take on the matter.

More than Good Intentions: How a New Economics is Helping to Solve Global Poverty by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/More-Than-Good-Intentions-Improving/dp/0452297567)

This book is similar to the two others and takes a very similar trajectory. There was great synergy in what I was reading in these three books and I enjoyed that experience. It goes into detail about how we can better invest so as to help the most number of people in the best way possible. These fact-backed suggestions can offer a good starting point for anyone (to research or donate).

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/New-Confessions-Economic-Hit-Man/dp/B019G3T20U/ref=sr_1_1?crid=8YSFJQR4736D&dchild=1&keywords=new+confessions+of+an+economic+hitman&qid=1591451748&s=books&sprefix=confessions+%2Cstripbooks-intl-ship%2C266&sr=1-1)

I found this quite boring, because he repeated the same story he had written in the previous book with just one small chapter to update the book. The original was interesting, and yes, it reads like a conspiracy theory. Interesting to me mainly because of the countries he spoke about: it made me want to read up on all of them and research the history. For putting me onto a research track, I give the original 4 stars. But the new book? None!

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Reading during the pandemic: Category 2

In Political History, I read about the politically charged situations in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the last century and North Korea’s political torture camps. Again, I detail two books, one from each country. Do not attempt to read them back-to-back if you don’t have a strong stomach for such stories!

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden (Available at https://www.amazon.com/Escape-Camp-14-Remarkable-Odyssey/dp/0143122916)

Conditions in North Korea are horrendous. Do we need more proof? No, maybe not. But this book is good if you like to know the story of a man who struggles to get out. The horrors are brought to life as only a personal story can bring it to life. The man, his personal struggles, and his country’s conditions are all told in vivid detail. You feel the tension and pain of the people, so I would recommend this. Also, it is a short enough read, clocking in at 256 pages. There are of course some gaps, and Harden seems to have some reservations about the narrator’s reliability, but if you can extrapolate and understand the general conditions without thinking every single incident is true, I think this would be a good book to read.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Survival-Killing-Fields-Haing-Ngor/dp/0786713151)

This book sent my mood teetering! I found some sections extremely hard to read: Although they tried to tone it down, the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge was apparent. I spent many days having a bad mood, in sadness. The only contention I have (and this is nothing that can be fixed) is that I cannot connect to Ngor. I don’t mean that he is not well presented. It is just that I see him do things I would never do, and it is just me (reading and writing within the confines of my comfortable existence) being unable to relate to his choices. I am not judging him because I have not lived his life and his realities. In fact, there were times that I could see me doing the same thing when I put myself into his shoes. But there is something about him that seems clinical and unsocial.

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Reading during the pandemic: Category 1

Imprisonment and Cruelty

In Imprisonment and Cruelty, I read about the prison system in the USA. It started me off on a whole new subject but here I detail just two books, very different in nature, that I enjoyed reading during the pandemic.

Solitary by Albert Woodfox (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Solitary-Albert-Woodfox/dp/0802129080)

I enjoyed this book for its writing style and for the new information that it held. But I found some parts of it difficult to get through. It is an eye opener to know the amount of suffering he went through, and it did get me thinking more about prisons (and imprisonment) around the world. But is it the first book on the subject that I read? No. Is it the most brutal of the books I have read on the prison system in USA? Maybe. Is it the most brutal of all torture and imprisonment books I have read? No. So, I hope that helps you contextualize the amount of pain you will feel when reading this. I am not desensitized since I had read other books like this but I don’t think this was the worst of the worst.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Orange-New-Black-Womens-Prison/dp/0385523394)

I loved this book. It got me excited to read, it had a good flow, it was personal, and it did not try to vilify people unnecessarily. Btw, this is a non-fiction that reads like it was a fiction. I was glued to the book, and couldn’t wait to discuss it. Of course, the discussion part went in a direction I did not expect, because the person I debated it with did not know it was a book, based his understanding and opinions on the adaptation, and spoke on topics other than what I found in the book. Since I had not watched the adaptation, we could not connect to each other’s points of view. That was an utter failure but the book was great. Yes, she is flawed. Yes, there is some obvious privilege. And yes, she tries to walk that line, but I did not mind it. I knew it, but I was just excited to read her story. If there were a book by a black woman, would I read it? Absolutely!!! Also, I do think that story might be more hard-hitting than this because the conditions are different.

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So what did you do during the pandemic?

Well then, that was an interesting half year wasn’t it?! Do we even know where we are at the moment? Most of us feel like we have been turned on our heads. It has been tough for many, for economic, psychological, and social reasons. But in this post, I want to focus on something else a little more positive. I have been wracking my brain to think what I could write about during this time. I know it is now a long time since we went into lockdown around the world, but the effects are still being felt. But most of us found ways to deal with it, in some form or the other. We needed our friends and family but also learnt to rely on our own reserves.

For me, that meant that I went into my shell, read a respectable amount of books, cooked and cleaned (just like everyone else), and learnt a bunch of things. I did some courses on Harvard/EdX and Coursera, of which the latter was my favorite. But, what I want to get into is the books I read over the past 60 days. The next few posts will be about these books. I categorized them loosely into the following:

  1. Imprisonment and cruelty (prisons in USA)
  2. Political history (Cambodia, North Korea)
  3. Economics
  4. Fiction
  5. Self-help and development
  6. Philosophy

Becoming who you want to be – Zurich, 12.12.2019

Michelle Obama’s relatable and revealing memoir was my companion this morning as I sat with my coffee and toast. The olives and cheese mixing with the granola on the crunchy toast was heavenly as I delved into Michelle’s life. The Nespresso added a sweet tang in the background to her reflections.

My intention this December was to read as much as I could and as fast as I could. I wanted to finish about 30 books in the month. But, with this book, I know I want to take time. There is so much here to love. Her voice, her writing, her life, her friends…. They are all so vivid and absolutely right for me at this moment.

I love disappearing into a book because it allows me to live the life of another and to feel their trials, which to me always seemed worse than mine. Not because my trials aren’t bad, but because they feel and write with such precision and conviction, showing each strand of their emotion, and they take me through the pain they felt. I could never feel like this, and I marvel at those who feel such depth in their souls.

Only one time have I felt unbearable pain: I am writing this post following one impossible year that has seen me fall to my knees, curl up in the fetal position, writhing in pain on the floor of a friend’s living room. The year chewed me and spat me out. I came out battered and bruised. But books allowed me to escape the pain then and helps me now to understand how different people react to situations. I feel the joy they feel, I cry for their sorrows, and I celebrate their wins. This is why I have always read and why books give me peace. It connects me to humanity and humankind even as it takes me away from it.

Zurich, 11.12.2019

A golden compass to guide a child to a destiny that will end all destiny….

Philip Pullman’s fantastic novel (Northern Lights/Golden Compass) was my companion on this gorgeous Wednesday morning as I had my first breakfast in Switzerland for 2019. Sitting in my friend’s balcony, my only purpose for the day was to relax and rest. A 24-hour journey lay behind me, with a flight into Milan via Kuwait and a train journey through Milan to Zurich.

What better way to relax than a fantasy novel? I parsed this like I had not parsed a book before! I had to discuss this with the friend who had lent the book to me so I knew I would need to be thorough with it, but it was interesting enough on its own for me to want to do it. I spent hours trying to understand Lyra and Pan, the philosophy and science behind the novel, and my own reactions to the book. Needless to say, the discussion afterwards was not only long but heated! We attacked it from all sides and I may have said things that made his eyes bulge! But, what good is sharing a book if it does not spark such lively debate?

Resolutions and book challenges

Note: if you are not interested in books or the little issues that readers face, you may skip this little post.

Being a book worm, my new year resolutions usually involve reading challenges. For the last 6 years, this has been to read a 100 books. I have come close. 92, 96. Even the respectable 80. But never ever have I been able to hit 100. This magic number eludes me. So what do I do? I continue that same resolution year after year (even after posting half-hearted numbers such as 52 a couple of years ago) in the hope that I will one day get to it. To add to that, this time I have added Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, one long, long book that requires a lot of time.
Now, this could be me setting myself up to fail once again. Or, it could be this indefatigable belief in my own reading ability. Why do I (and other book-readers) do this? I have been reading through many posts by similar resolution-makers, but I have not been able to come to a conclusion. Probably, it has something to do with our innate need to categorize, list down and excel at what we do best.
This need to list down and count leads to many responses in our own psyches. Some embrace it and some run screaming from it. And yet, we cannot get out from under that fascination of counting. We still engage with the concept and practice of it.
I think it’s a good thing. We then keep track of what we have read, what we tried and whatever else we want to keep track of. It bugs no one, its private and it pits us only against ourselves. In my case, it has led to an increase in reading. I am still trying to read 34,000 books, which I heard some librarian had done some time ago!!! I will probably never get to that goal, but that’s OK. That’s something extraneous. I am not even sure it is true, although it was shown as a record on the papers. Even if I never read 34,000, I will still read some interesting and educational books, and isn’t that it’s own reward?

Let interest in your brand come organically! Tips for increasing traffic to your site.

Lots of clients who come to me for content creation discuss key words with me, and insist on having it in abundance. They want content in a certain way, and will tell me things such as “information that is for the general public is not relevant to my site and me”. Fine, I hear you loud and clear. But  do you?

Thing is, content creation is an ever changing area and what worked yesterday may not work today. Take the case of Google’s search engine. Yes, that all-important search engine ranking that drives our content needs. It changes. It has changed. And it will continue to change. Key words are now not the only way to drive up traffic. Read about it here.

Secondly, let’s talk about thought leadership. Thought leaders are influencing market decisions in significant ways. Think not? Take Oprah. She and her interviewees shaped what we bought and how we thought for many years (and sometimes, continue to do so). That is opinion and thought leadership at its best (and yes, there are people ruining this concept by calling themselves thought leaders without actual experience or knowledge). Take this article for instance: it deals with why and how one becomes a thought leader. Don’t the points resonate with you? Do you see how they affect you? You must have the following of many customers, and the endorsement of a few legitimate thought leaders. Just like you advertise with known personalities playing lead roles, let them or others like them endorse your product online. They will persuade a new clientele for you.

And if you can’t get that endorsement? Create content that is user-generated. This links back to the first article about content creation. This method is now fast becoming popular, due to the changes with Google. Increase social media presence and links in and out of your site. That is organic growth. If you can get someone to come to your site through following you, or your blog, or through other connections you have made online (forums that allow links back to your social media sites), you are well on your way to leading the competition.

There are many subtle ways to get that traffic to your site. Talk to your content officer today, and see what works best for you and your company.

Women’s choices

ObamaCare reduces costs for women on birth control plans:

http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/07/birth-controls-big-cost-control-gains-from-obamacare.html

Hope that leads to better plans for women. We need more information to be available for women who are considering birth control.

How does the new generation work?

As someone who thinks offices need to become more flexible, I am opposed to the idea of 9-5 jobs. I prefer places that allow their workers to come in when they like and leave when they like, AS LONG AS they finish their work and deliver on what they promise.

Seems like that falls within the features of millennials, as written by Jones Loflin in the following article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/millennials-dont-want-work-life-balance-jones-loflin

I guess we need to be handled differently from our parents. Our work patterns are different, which need to be accommodated. Happy reading. 🙂

Marketing and the seven sins (Alok Ranjan)

Was going through some articles on LinkedIn, one of my favorite pastimes in the social media world, and I found this gem:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/7-deadly-sins-digital-marketing-alok-ranjan

In my more annoyed moments (after an onslaught of advertisements and in-your-face marketing), I have thought that marketing should be banned, that it should be illegal to have so much noise on TV, radio, and even the roads. I understand the importance of branding, sales and marketing, but that has never made me a believer of false advertising and exaggeration of the effects of a product. Not everyone can be the market leader, but if marketing is to be believed, every company is.

In my own writing, I have attempted at all times to steer clear of such deception. And mostly, I have succeeded. With that attitude in mind, I am sharing this for the benefit of the customer as well as the company. Hope you enjoy the article!

Vietnam in December – Part 1 (synopsis)

December 2014: I decided to travel with friends this time, and guess who joined me! My Swiss friends, Patricia and Sabine. Got to know these two when they came to Sri Lanka some years back for their Masters degree researches. Had a great time with them, and when they went back, they kept in touch. Missing friends is never fun, and last year we decided we should meet again, and thought why not meet in a country none of us have been to. So Vietnam it was and in the midst of extra busy work times and general chaos, we managed to organize the trip. Met the girls in Thailand and it was like they had never left.

The first two hours in Hanoi were a weird experience. From the confusing hotel drivers who picked us up, bundled us into a van only to ask us to change vehicles just outside the airport parking lot, to the drive to the city, I was not pleased. We all thought we would die, the way the driver maneuvered the vehicle, and the drive was quite long. However, we came safely to the hotel, and the people there were extremely friendly. The room was quite good too, white and bright. The girls slept for most of the evening, given their longer flight. I decided to walk out a bit, but stuck to the immediate lanes in case the girls woke. When they did, we went out walking and discovered not just quaint food in little alleyways, but a beautiful cathedral with larger-than-life Christmas decor and a Vietnamese wedding, next to an international coffee house (architecture and posters were very European). Watching the lights come on on the Christmas decor, sitting with my two Swiss friends, in a coffee house serving an eclectic mix of international drinks was a moment of pure joy and wonder. This was the highlight for me for Hanoi. I did not feel entirely comfortable with the shops atmosphere. Somehow it felt like the proverbial concrete jungle, and I was not happy.

We went to Hoi An (I was sponsored by the girls, which I thought was extremely sweet and generous) and I really loved it. We had a private chalet-like room, very spacious and lovely. It had two bathrooms that were open to the sky, with wooden bamboo walls. I loved it, especially that the beds were super comfortable and large.

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The basics of the trip being covered, I feel that a more comprehensive and heart-felt post is required for the rest of the trip. Hence, this will be post 1, or the synopsis, while part 2 will cover the details. Until then!

5 year plans in the world of work

Ever since I left full-time work and started on my own, I have been thinking about the pros and cons of in-office work (leaning heavily towards self-employment, of course).

Found this article about 5 year plans on a local radio station’s FB page:

http://lite87.com/8-reasons-why-having-a-five-year-career-plan-is-completely-overrated/

I have been asked this 5-year plan question by some companies. But you know, weirdly, it was by companies I would call stodgy, more than progressive. The question, as well as the “where do you see yourself in 5 years” question, should be eradicated from the interview questions. These two questions are no longer relevant, at least in my opinion.

Sole ventures

Those of us who are workaholics should consider going into business for ourselves. It does come with risks, of course, but so does everything else. The advantage we have is that we like working, we want to work.

Going into business means constantly being on top of your game. It means marketing, networking, late nights, early mornings, and continued focus on your work. Every thing is an opportunity. Every thing is a business deal.

This can translate into stress for sure, but it is offset by the opportunity to take a break when you need it, and the money that keeps increasing based on your dedication helps!

All you need to do is get your market research done and be efficient. And no, efficiency doesn’t mean you hop around like bunnies, it means you do what is needed with speed and precision.

This is a simplified post, not a comprehensive one. Just remember, your hard work pays off, and you make profits for yourself. You set the rules, you decide the holidays. One of the things I love best about working for myself is that I get to spend time with my loved ones whenever needed. I balance the work and my personal commitments and I don’t waste time.

That’s the other advantage of working for yourself. You know the value of time and learn to maximise it. Productivity increases. You learn to balance commitments. You find efficient ways to work. You learn what is important and what is not. Most of all, you are not stuck in someone else’s time frame..

Chloe’s Cupcakes

My best friend recently started a cupcakes business, named Chloe’s cupcakes. She has always been creative and an excellent baker, and this is a great venture for her.
She does some amazing customised cupcakes, so do check out Chloe’s cupcakes on FB (Chloe’s Cupcakes). Also, she does delivery in the Dehiwala and Colombo areas, so you can get it delivered to your home or office.

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