TagBooks

The Coldest City

Cover of the book The Coldest City

After reading Logicomix on the Kindle app, I decided to try one more from my wishlist. The Coldest City was more fun to read because it was formatted specifically for the the app. Each “page turn” would pan between frames and then show the entire page before moving to the next one.

Actually, no! It wasn’t formatted like that. I just checked; it was static pages. I read it almost two years ago and this how my brain decided to remember it because of the art. The understated black and white style really drew me in. Most of the book doesn’t have much action, but drawing and layouts added so much action even in the static frames. See for yourself:

Panels from the book The Coldest City

I am looking forward to reading more work by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, and will start with the free version of Fuse #1 (sorry for the Amazon link 😞). Hoping to get some printed versions soon.

Design Systems Handbook

Cover of the book Design Systems Handbook

I’ve been involved in the process of instating a design system twice. First, with the short-lived attempt to move the MediaWiki platform to mediawiki.ui. And second, replacing mediawiki.ui and whatever else MediaWiki was using to OOUI.

While the first attempt was limited to a small CSS file and KSS generated documentation, the second one came with a full-fledged demos page and a styleguide to go with it. MediaWiki is in the process of transitioning once again, now to Vue.js. This time though, things are different, the style guide remains in place, it is only the implementation of the components that’ll change.

So when I first heard about the Design Systems Handbook on the Design Better podcast I was immediately interested. Large legacy products like MediaWiki have long suffered from bespoke designs for every corner. Design systems that can scale-up help build products faster.

Continue reading “Design Systems Handbook”

How to Take Smart Notes

I’ve always found writing to be an impossibly hard thing to do. So, for the last few years I’ve been trying to learn and practice it more often.

Cover of the book 'How to Take Smart Notes'

I’ve also always felt like I have thoughts that I never really know how to express. I’m amazed when other people are able to say the things that I am thinking more clearly than the way I’ve been thinking them. I see that people who’ve studied at good universities, or are generally smarter than me are just able to do this. When I discovered this book — How to take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens — I didn’t expect it would have anything to do with this, but it ended up giving me an insight into the learning and writing process of academics.

The book describes an external system for reading, thinking, and writing. It argues that moving things into an external system enables learning and frees up our brains. By putting things in an external system, we give our brains permission to forget and focus instead on thinking.

The gist of the system is:

  1. While reading, make notes using your own words. Only when we’ve actually understood the material can we express it in our own words
  2. Link these notes with other notes that could be related — this helps uncover patterns. Forming these connections also helps our memory, and recall becomes easier in the correct context
Continue reading “How to Take Smart Notes”

Deep Work

Cover of the book Deep Work by Cal Newport

I’ve been trying to be less distracted by the Internet while working. Stopping my instinct to open The Wire in a new tab while trying to debug something has been difficult, especially with news breaking as it has been in the last six months.

Knowing that focus is important for our work doesn’t always translate into us doing focussed work. This is because we constantly have the urge to turn our attention elsewhere. Deep Work by Cal Newport explains that if we didn’t have to use our willpower to resist urges we would yield better results. It goes on to suggest some strategies to achieve this.

Levels of deep work

The author offers different levels of deep work and notes that your mileage for this kind of work may vary.

Monastic: Maximise deep efforts by radically eliminating shallow obligations forever

Bimodal: Divide time clearly defined stretches of deep work and the rest for everything else. The scale of division could be anywhere between days to weeks, to months.

Rhythmic: Deep work as a regular habit combined with the chain (streak) method to make sure it is done consistently.

Journalistic: Rapidly switching between deep work and shallow work. Requires practice and confidence in abilities

Process

Ritualize: Decide when you’ll work for and for how long. Impose rules of distraction free work . Give yourself support in terms on nourishment and exercise. Experiment to figure out a ritual that works for you.

Execute: Lessons from the book titled The 4 Disciplines of Execution:

  • Pick an ambitious goal and use that to drive focus
  • Focus on and measure lead indicators
  • Keep a score of the lead indicators. Use it to track progress and milestones.
  • Review your scoreboard — celebrate successes and figure out how to ensure good days ahead.

Review: Take a look at your email and respond to anything urgent. Transfer tasks and ideas from your brain into your todo and notes. Review your calendar and make a rough plan for the next day/week.

Rest: Once work is over for the day (or the week) completely shutdown work thinking. This helps the brain consciously work on insights and get time to recharge.

Some other strategies that the author suggests are:

Grand gestures: Leverage a radical change in environment, possibly linked with an investment of time and money to increase the perceived importance of the task. For eg, booking a hotel for two days to finish the project you’ve been working on.

Collaborate: Leverage the whiteboard effect where you work side-by-side with someone on a problem, and both push each other toward deeper levels of work.

Finally, it’s important to remember that our focus improves as we practice it more. Like meditation, as we focus our attention on just the task at hand we become more used to working this way.

Further reading

Anything You Want

Cover of the book "Anything you Want" by Derek Sivers

I tend to take things seriously, more seriously than I’d like, and more seriously than it is good for me. Anything You Want by Derek Sivers is a good lesson on taking most things as they come, but taking your core values seriously:

Make sure you know what makes you happy, and don’t forget it.

Page 73

It also reminds the reader to focus on what they want to do and not what they want to have.

The whole point of doing anything is because it makes you happy! …its about what you want to be, not what you want to have. To have something (like an album, or a million dollars) is the means, not the end. To be something (like a good singer, or just plain happy) is the real point.

Page 58

The book also had tons of advice for small business owners, while I couldn’t agree with all of it, some points really stuck with me:

  • The customers are more important than the business itself. The business’ objective should be customer satisfaction, not survival.
  • Tiny details of design and customer experience delight and thrill people enough to make them tell their friends about you.

It was a very quick read, and I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of starting something of their own and have an hour to spare 😊

Logicomix

Knowing that I’ve been trying to learn about Bertrand Russell and logic, Amber recommended this book to me. Since I was travelling at the time I decided to read it on the Kindle app instead of shipping a paperback home. This was the first time I read a comic on the phone and was surprised at how good the reading experience was. I sometimes had to zoom in to read the text, but most pages weren’t dense, so it was fine.

I did not like the meta comic when I started the book but it grew on me. By the end of the book, I was waiting to read more commentary, and learn about the process behind the book.

My favourite panel was when Russell visits Frege for the first time:

This other panel is very close to a theme my dad often takes in his conversations. I was happy to see that others share his point of view.

The book helped me learn a complex concept while keeping me entertained. Alecos Papadatos next work, Democracy is certainly on my wish-list. Paperback this time, but only because I want it on my shelf 🙂

Rework

Rework book cover

I have been a fan of 37Signals since I can remember — I used to use prototype.js, learnt Rails for freelance work, and made everything I worked on look like Basecamp. But, when their book released I assumed it won’t be available in India (it was), or that it would be too expensive to buy anyway (it wasn’t).

So, when on a recent visit to the GrandWorks office I saw it lying on Sid’s desk, I borrowed it and read it in a single sitting. Here are my highlights:

Sacrifice some of your darlings for the greater good. Cut your ambition in half. You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.

When something succeeds, you know what worked-and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better. Failure is not a prerequisite for success… Success is the experience that actually counts.

The problem with abstractions (like reports and documents) is that they create illusions of agreement. A hundred people can read the same words, but in their heads, they’re imagining a hundred different things.

Their approach to planning is one that I have recently adopted in my daily life, especially my side projects:

When you turn guesses into plans, you enter a danger zone. Plans let the past drive the future. They put blinders on you… Plans are inconsistent with improvisation… Working without a plan may seem scary. But blindly following a plan that has no relationship with reality is even scarier.

Mass is increased by: permanent decisions, inventory (physical and mental) long-term road maps… less mass means you’ll be able to change direction easily. The more expensive it is to make a change, the less likely you are to make it.

Don’t make up problems you don’t have yet…the decisions you make today don’t need to last forever. Decisions are temporary. Optimize for now and worry about the future later.

This year, I have been trying to be more proactive at sharing my work. The ideas in this book, and Show Your Work have greatly influenced how I think about it:

Everything has a by-product. Observant and creative minds spot these by-products and see opportunities.

So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos – whatever. Share information that is valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.

Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them… Teach and you’ll form a bond you just don’t get from traditional marketing tactics… They’ll trust and respect you more.

Don’t be afraid to show your flaws. Imperfections are real and people respond to real. It’s why we like flowers that wilt, not plastic ones.

Don’t be afraid to give a little away for free – as long as you’ve got something else to sell. Be confident in what you’re offering.

Even though I’ve been late in both reading and writing about the book, it couldn’t have been at a better time — 37Signals recently announced their new book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy at Work. Looking forward to reading it when it releases in India!

Indian Government and Politics

Indian Government and Politics
Indian Government and Politics

I didn’t pay attention to Civics class in school, so it was time I revisited the syllabus and found out how the Indian government worked. This interest was triggered by the Aadhaar case, and also by my attempt to understand where the ISRO WikiProject lies in the larger Indian government system.
I decided to get Indian Government and Politics from SAGE publishing because I read somewhere that it was a textbook for UPSC exams (of which I learnt more in the book). I supplemented my reading with an entertaining YouTube series called Consti-tuition hosted by Meghnad. I even got a subscription to Newslaundry to access the bonus content.

The video series and the book covered what the constitution said, and what reality is like. This was important for me as it helped me learn where the system fails and what kind of structures are made ad-hoc to deal with it. As Dan Kaminsky points out, this part of my learning will go on for much longer, maybe forever.

Graph of Indian political parties and their ideologies, as listed on Wikidata.

It also gave me a lot of new WikiData projects ideas. The first one being to visualize the national political parties and their ideologies. I’ll be working on more as time permits. Click image below for the Wikidata query.

This book was a good first step to learn the system and it’s lies. It seems pretty complex, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but at least I’ve begun to understand something… the me in school would have understood nothing, even if he did pay attention.

Maus

I read Maus in two sittings when I was alone at home in January. If I had known that the book was about the Holocaust, and that the main character, Mr Spiegelman, would remind me so much of my Dadi, I would have avoided reading it.

I secretly laughed at Dadi’s need for order, and perfection. And not just any order, but one of her design.

I got irritated when she accumulated trash and treated it like treasure.

I felt scared when she had one of her restless nights, not able to lie down nor sit up, only feeling better after Papa put a nitroglycerin patch.

And I cried when she told me how much she still missed Baba.

Even though I have the second part of the book, I am not going to be reading it for a long time. I miss Dadi.

On Writing Well

A half read ebook doesn’t clutter your bedside table. Instead, it buries itself under an icon. A 42-by-42px icon, of an obscure app, on a broken phone, which will never be taken for repair.

Fortunately, my copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser escaped this fate. I was reminded that I was reading it while scrolling through old blog posts. I was also reminded that I used to blog about books. These reminders ended my search for an open, sync-able, and cross-platform annotation solution. I have struggled to accept WhisperSync and struggled to implement OpenAnnotations, I just want a simple and easy alternative.
So, for now, I will have a single blog post for a book, with all highlights, and notes, using the Web Annotations markup standards. I didn’t make notes while reading this book so these are my highlights:

Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight…unity of pronoun…unity of tense…unity of mood…

I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.

The above quote was in the particular context of gendered pronouns (he/she/they), but I am noting it as general advice.

We are a culture that worships the winning result: the league championship, the high test score. Coaches are paid to win, teachers are valued for getting students into the best colleges. Less glamorous gains made along the way—learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure—aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.

All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey.

I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”)

When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper.

We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process that vague abstractions.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

by Andy Hunt

book cover pragmatic thinking and learning

This is probably the fastest I have ever read a book. In just a day it gave me a lot to try and think about.

Reinforcing some of my own thoughts, it gave me validation to try out techniques I would otherwise feel uncomfortable with. I can foresee it helping with some of the programming concepts that I have been struggling with.