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Book Notes: ‘The Other One Percent: Indians in America,’ by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh

the other one percent

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Other One Percent: Indians in America

By Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh
Published in 2017
Oxford University Press
ISBN–10: 0190648740
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An illuminating look at how Indians in America – a tiny percentage of the overall population – have come to enjoy such outsized success.

My Notes

The jacket copy sums up nicely the miracle that is Indian immigration to America:

One of the most remarkable stories of immigration in the last half century is that of Indians to the United States. People of Indian origin make up a little over one percent of the American population now, up from barely half a percent at the turn of the millennium. Not only has its recent growth been extraordinary, but this population from a developing nation with low human capital is now the most-educated and highest-income group in the world’s most advanced nation.

You read that passage, and the title of the book, right: There are only about 3 million people of Indian origin in the U.S.

That’s an astoundingly low number when you consider their prominence in tech, medicine, finance and more. As a group, they have much higher levels of education and income than other citizens.

How’d that happen?

The short story: A U.S. immigration act in 1917 virtually terminated immigration from Asia. But changes to the law in 1965 opened things up, and thus began an influx of Indians.

But not just any Indians.

The authors – academics at Temple University (Chakravorty), the University of Pennsylvania (Kapur) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Singh) – argue that Indian immigrants were “triple selected”:

  1. They came from dominant castes and had access to higher education
  2. They were selected to take exams in tech fields
  3. They benefitted from U.S. immigration law, which favored immigrants with tech skills

The book is absolutely brimming with data, and makes for a fantastic resource. (One reason I read substantive books in paper rather than on a Kindle is so I can underline passages, take photos for blog posts like this one, and then put them back on my shelf for future use!)

“The Other One Percent” contains some excellent graphs and charts, like this one, illustrating just how exceptional this population is:

IMG 0645

There were three phases of Indians coming to America:

  1. The early movers, in the 1960s and 1970s
  2. The families (1980s through early 1990s)
  3. The IT generation (after the early 1990s)

IMG 0648

Here’s a map of where Indian-Americans tend to be clustered in the U.S., based on community organizations:

indians in america by geography

And here’s data on the boom in H–1B visas (a topic on which I’ve reported before) issued to highly skilled workers – and Indians’ huge proportion of those.

indian visas and america

Finally, while the book argues that “the success of Indian Americans is at its core a selection story,” the authors do touch on other potential factors. These include:

  • “thrift and pooling of savings”
  • English language skills
  • strong social networks
  • “cohesive families”
  • an experience with social heterogeneity in India that has made them more “adaptable”

I highly recommend “The Other One Percent” for those interested in immigration and immigration policy, the Indian diaspora, and American society broadly.

Book Notes: ‘Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Published (in English): 2014
ISBN–10: 0062316095
Amazon link

Brief Summary

A deeply thought-provoking book about how homo sapiens came to dominate the world – and how our advancements have come at a significant cost.

My notes

I love big, sprawling books that tackle huge subjects and challenge you to change the way you conceive of the world.

This global bestseller, which has been all the rage among Silicon Valley technologists in recent years, in particular, is one of the best of that sort of title I’ve read.

It’s a kind of even-bigger-picture “Guns, Germs and Steel,” the hit 1997 book (which I also loved) in which Jared Diamond famously demonstrated the role the environment has played in shaping civilization and material development.

I think anyone who reads this fun, fast-paced, surprisingly easy-to-read book will be hard pressed not to come away with the sense that:

Human life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things;
– Our advancements as a species have been mind-bogglingly rapid, with humans and the planet paying a huge price;
– The way we have been living for the last 200 years is radically at odds with how humans have existed over the long term;
– The jury is out, according to Harari, as to whether humans will survive in the long term. He is not optimistic.

(Okay, all that may sound depressing, I know realize, but still…)

  • Harari, a historian, shows how homo sapiens evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then 70,000 years ago spread out of Africa as the cognitive revolution took over, in which language emerge and allowed sapiens to either kill off or out-flourish other humans, like Neanderthals.
  • We all know that sapiens wiped out the world’s biggest animals, but Harari reinforces this point, recounting how we killed off megafauna from Australia to the Americas over time. Sapiens has historically destroyed everything in its path, and now that we have nuclear weapons, Harari is not bullish on our long term survival. But, of course, the universe doesn’t care about people. Cockroaches and rats are thriving today despite our having driven other creatures to extinction, and could in millions of years evolve into sophisticated creatures, thanking us for demolishing the planet and setting the stage for their rise.

  • The agricultural revolution, which happened about 12,000 years ago, was “history’s biggest fraud,” Harari writes, because it lead to widespread suffering for farmers and laborers producing food for elites, while life as hunter-gatherers may have largely been more conducive to human happiness despite shorter lives and higher rates of violence.

  • 2,500 hundred years ago coinage came into use. Money equals trust. Harari is big on “imagined orders” and the power of ideas to bind or separate us, such as democracy, capitalism, racism and the caste system.

  • The scientific revolution, about 500 years ago, lead to the industrial revolution some three hundred years later, and ultimately imperialism, with all its devastation for those subjugated.

    “The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years,” he writes. Capitalism + scientific inquiry = imperialism.

  • The industrial revolution – while providing us with undeniable material and medical benefits – has meant “family and community” have been replaced by “state and market.”

    “Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members,” he writes. “Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.

  • Industrialized animal husbandry feeds the world, but “If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.

  • I found the penultimate chapter, on human happiness, to be particularly thought-provoking.

    Money doesn’t ultimately bring lasting happiness due the luxury trap: there are diminishing returns to having fancy things, and someone always has even nicer stuff. That’s the case even for most billionaires.

    Community, family, positive marriages, and living according to one’s values – and with a sense of purpose – matter more. It could be that happiness most flourishes when we buy into belief systems or religious delusions, even if scientifically life has no meaning.

  • Harari seems to promote Buddhist philosophy and meditation as an antidote to alienation. “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them,” he writes.

  • Ultimately, for all our advancements, human suffering is still rife in the world – whether it’s due to consumerism, ongoing oppression, or other factors. That puts all of our economic and scientific progress into perspective. Are humans actually happier today than tens of thousands of years ago? We are undoubtedly healthier and safer, but we may not be any happier.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2017

Best books 2017

Here are the top 10 books I read during 2017. I may add individual Book Notes writeups for some of these later, but wanted to share the list as the year has come to a close.

(As in previous roundups, these are books I encountered during the year, not books published only in 2017.)

I chose these nonfiction titles mostly due to my professional and personal interests: technology trends, India, economics, media – and, let’s not forget, dogs!

I also see now that I read a shockingly small amount of fiction in 2017. I may try to remedy that in 2018. (I did consume a beach read or two that weren’t memorable enough to add to this list, I should note.)

In no particular order:

Nonfiction

Fiction

  • The Windup Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Sci-fi, set in a post-apocalyptic Bangkok? Yes, please! A fast-paced, thought provoking novel about genetic engineering (both agricultural and human), the environment, money, and power. Highly recommended.

  • The Circle,” by Dave Eggers. I didn’t think I’d like this book, as I’d heard it involves ludicrously far-fetched technologies. But it’s in many ways an important novel of our times, showing what could happen if societies continue to obsess over the digital rather than the physical world, and a fictional reminder that startups outwardly driven by utopian ideals are companies like any other, pursuing profits and influence. Also highly recommended. (Note: I haven’t seen the movie.)

Previously: The Best Books I Read in 2016.

Book Notes: ‘The Innovators,’ by Walter Isaacson

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

the_innovators_walter_isaacson

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Published: 2014
ISBN: 978-1476708690
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An exhaustive, compulsively readable account of how the computer and the internet came to be.

My Notes

  • If you’re looking for a comprehensive account of how some of the 21st century’s most important technical inventions came to be, this is it. It is long, at just under 500 pages, but is well paced and fascinating throghout.
  • Isaacson, who’s written acclaimed biographies of Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin and more, does an excellent job synthesizing what is fairly complex engineering material into a wide-ranging look at how innovations occured and — most important — what drove the men and women behind them.
  • An over-arching theme is that innovation is a group effort. Forget the idea of solo inventors toiling away in labs. Big breakthroughs happen via team efforts, often when engineers are paired with visionaries. In workspaces, physical proximity is important so that workers can share ideas.
  • The transistor was to the digital age what the steam engine was to the industrial age.
  • Vacuum tubes led to transistsors, which led to semiconductors and then microchips.
  • A group of men from a more traditional semiconductor company on the east coast headed west what is now known, yes, as Silicon Valley, to start their own operations (or startup). Their style was much more laid back, with unconventional work practices, a culture that prevails today.
  • Venture capital began as rich East coast families began backing west coast startups.
  • As most people know, government spending has always propelled the U.S. tech industry. A government project that started as a way for universities to share computing power, orginally begun as a government funded initiative to provide a secure means of communication in the event of a nuclear attack, became the internet.
  • In 1969 alone, that project began, NASA put a man on the moon, and microprocessors emerged.
  • The internet expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, but it didn’t hit a critical mass commercially until Sept. 1993.
  • Bill Gates and Paul Allen created the software industry.

Book Notes: ‘The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century,’ by George Friedman

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

Next 100 years

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

Published: 2009
ISBN: 9780767923057
Amazon link

Brief Summary

Can anyone really predict what will happen over the next century? Friedman, the founder of geopolitical research firm Stratfor, which analyzes global events for private clients, gives it a shot.

In this 2009 book, he argues that American influence began after the U.S. won the cold war, and will only continue though the 21st century. But it will be tested by factors like an increasingly aggressive Russia and other states like Japan and Mexico.

My notes:

  • Don’t worry about U.S. economic troubles — the book was published in the midst of the Great Recession — the author says, because history shows the U.S. government tends to intervene to prevent total collapse. So the economy will online continue growing
  • Three crucial factors affecting the world order during the 20th century were:
    • The end of the European imperial system
    • The world population quadrupling
    • A revolution in transportation and communications
  • Three important factors during the 21st century will be:
    • The continuation of American power
    • The end of the population boom
    • Technologies to deal with declining populations
  • The main threats to U.S. power will be Middle Eastern states, Russia, Japan and Mexico.

    Russia will continue to expand its territory to recoup its losses after the fall of the Soviet Union. Japan‘s desire for empire will rekindle. Mexico will spell trouble for the U.S. due to demographic issues, with so many people of Mexican descent living in America.

  • Friedman says the U.S. shouldn’t be overly concerned about China, because its history shows ongoing conflict between the poor interior region and the richer coastal areas. Rather than aspiring to expand its territory, Chinese leaders will focus more on tamping down social unrest at home.
  • The U.S. economy is a global power, and will continue to be one, in part because of its military might. The U.S. Navy controls the world’s shipping lanes, crucial for international trade.
  • Cultures move over time from being barbaric to civilized to decadent. The U.S., as a relatively young country, is still in its barbaric stage and is thus willing to wage war in its national interest.
  • Ultimately, military conflicts will move into space, where the U.S. will continue to have the upper hand against rivals.

Book Notes: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

everything_store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone

Published: 2013
ISBN: 0316219282
Amazon link

Brief Summary

The fascinating story of the rise of Amazon, which is the story of Jeff Bezos himself. He is brilliant, analytical, highly competitive, and driven. Bezos built Amazon not only to create the best contemporary company of its kind, vanquishing all rivals, but engineered systems to innovate and continue to succeed well into the future.

My notes:

  • I read this book as part of the research for my Wall Street Journal story, published in November, about Amazon’s rapid progress here in India. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Amazon. I couldn’t have picked a better book.
  • Author Brad Stone, who covered Amazon for years for the likes of The New York Times and Newsweek, provides the fascinating story of Bezos’s personal background, his early academic success, and his bold decision to leave a high-paying Wall Street job to move out west and found Amazon.
  • The book is not a hagiography, however. Bezos and Amazon are presented warts and all. Anecdotes show the Amazon founder to be at times ruthless in his quest for success, and other times enormously generous. And the high-pressure nature of Amazon’s corporate culture is plain to see.
  • I’m old enough to recall the dotcom bust, but “The Everything Store” serves as a good reminder to younger readers just how bleak things got for Amazon, when its stock fell and many believed one of its e-commerce competitors, eBay, would be the runaway success, not Amazon.
  • From a communications perspective, it’s interesting to note the book highlights several instances when new public announcements have been timed over the years to conincide with competitors’ quarterly results, as a way to steal their thunder. And Bezos himself is a master at messaging, honing “Jeff-isms” to express the company’s point of view in a pithy manner, often deflect various criticisms of the company along the way.
  • If you want to learn more about Bezoz, Amazon, and its culture, Stone has helpfully provided a list of “a dozen books widely read by executives and employees that are integral to understanding the company. Some of the titles include the novel “The Remains of the Day,” books by Sam Walton and Alan Greenberg, and modern-day business classics like “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Black Swan.”

The Best Books I Read in 2016

2016 12 30books

I read many books this year, and as faithful readers know, I’ve been sharing my notes from some of them under the heading “Book Notes.”

I’ll break down my picks according to two categories:

My favorite book published this year:

I read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” over the summer, and its insights have stuck with me.

In brief, Newport, a computer science academic, stresses the importance to our careers of doing uninterrupted, sophisticated, value-added work, and avoiding distractions like social media.

Common sense? Yes.

But in a world where information of dubious quality and technologies engineered to monopolize our attention seem to proliferate by the day, it’s a timely reminder that we must focus on activities that distinguish us from our competitors.

My full notes are here.

My pick for the best book I read this year*, regardless of when it was published:

It’s been around for nearly a decade, but Joe Studwell’s “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia” was a revelation for me, because it provided historical context for what I’d seen all around me during my time in Thailand and Singapore.

Studwell’s thesis: The region’s dysfunctional governments have given rise to its billionaire godfathers.

In turn, Southeast Asia has produced few, if any, truly global brands because the region’s biggest firms simply take advantage of monopolies or licenses, don’t really innovate, and thus aren’t internationally competitive.

My full notes are here.
*Okay, I’m cheating here: I actually read this book in November 2015, but that’s pretty close to 2016!

On the Importance of Reading Books to Understand the World

Will Schwalbe, in a WSJ Saturday essay called “The Need to Read”:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

And:

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.

The technology of a book is genius: The order of the words is fixed, whether on the page or on the screen, but the speed at which you read them is entirely up to you. Sure, this allows you to skip ahead and jump around. But it also allows you to slow down, savor and ponder.

And a passage that especially resounded with me:

So I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.

I know I’m not alone in my hunger for books to help me find the right questions to ask, and find answers to the ones that I have. I am now in my mid-50s, a classic time for introspection. But any age is a good age for examining your life. Readers from their teens to their 90s have shared with me their desire for a list of books to help guide them.

In a word: yes.

The essay is excerpted from Schwalbe’s new work, “Books for Living,” which comes out next month.

Book Notes — The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

The dog stars

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
Published: 2013
ISBN: 1611736137
Amazon link
Rating: 8/10

Brief recap: A beautifully written, hope-infused post-apocalyptic novel. Yes, you read that right.

My notes:

  • I am not ashamed to admit I an enamored of post-apocalyptic fiction. Like another well-known book about a disaster-struck world, Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” this novel tells the story of handful of people left behind after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. But unlike “The Road,” as some reviewers have noted, this book — while it does contains some very real nastiness — is dominated by the protagonist’s love for his deceased wife, his bond with his beloved dog, and his hope that the future may bring salvation of some sort. In other words, it is strangely optimistic. And very moving.

  • Narratively speaking, Heller does an excellent job recounting, in bits and pieces via flashbacks, the sickness that befell humanity. But rather than get into highly specific medical or scientific details, he hints at symptoms and theories, leaving the reader to ponder precisely what happened. Similarly, the reader gleans just enough details about the how chaos unfolds to still leave some questions unanswered. This is not, in other words, “World War Z,” replete with gory details (and zombie attacks), viewed from some future standpoint.

  • The novel is set in Colorado, and there are some really gorgeous passages here about nature: mountainous vistas, deer, trout. Striking stuff.

  • This is a book aviation buffs will enjoy, as the narrator, Hig, lives with his partner at an abandoned airport. Hig frequently takes his Cessna out to patrol surrounding areas and visit other survivors, and the book has some detailed passages about the experience of flying.

Book Notes — ‘Never Eat Alone,’ by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

Never eat alone

Never Eat Alone…and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
By Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0385346654
Amazon link
Rating: 6/10

Brief recap: A popular book about the power of networking. I didn’t find it revelatory, but appreciate the central theme, which is common sense: that you should help friends just to help them, not because you expect something in return. In other words, as the author writes, networking can be a huge advantage – but don’t keep score.

My notes:

  • Ferrazzi relates his story of growing up in the U.S. in a lower-middle class family, outside of elite circles. One he became friends with influential people, however, he discovered that they helped him in school and work, and that – of course – it’s much better to be on the inside than on the outside looking in.
  • Anyone who’s read books about the power of networking is probably familiar with most of the notions mentioned here. These include: the importance of building relationships with business contacts over the long term; the importance of being kind to assistants and other gatekeepers; why it’s key to follow up after you meet new contacts in order to stay in touch; how to make the most of meeting people at conferences; how to make small talk; etc.

  • My main takeaway from the book, though, was that it reinforced the the importance of trust in building career capital via the relationships you make, over time. As Ferrazzi writes:

My point is this: Relationships are solidified by trust. Institutions are built on it. You gain trust not by asking what people can do for you, to paraphrase an earlier Kennedy, but what you can do for others. In other words, the currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.

Business cycles ebb and flow; your friends and trusted associates remain.

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