Review of Atomic Habits, a potentially life changing book

Atomic habits cover

Recently, I finished reading Atomic Habits. It can be a life changing or a boring book, depending on how much of a mess or organized you are in your life, and whether you desire to improve it. A little bit of background about how I organize my life which serves as a note for the readers, as well as my future self.

Background

Why I started reading it? No specific reason – mostly to curate a habit of practising yoga at home; can’t judge a book from it’s cover. This book which keeps surfacing in recommendations everywhere, so it made into my list as well 😛.

It’s been more than a year since I came across the article about time boxing technique by Nir Eyal and it has yielded me a lot of benefits. I have tried apps like Todoist – which is an excellent tool for what it does, but after using it a bunch of times I realised most of my stuff was recurring which doesn’t require something like Todoist.

Moreover, there was the thing about GSuite going paid for legacy users having free accounts, at which point I realized Office 365 gives much more value for money so I shifted to Office 365 subscription. Eventually GSuite made older users free, but now I’m too invested in the Microsoft ecosystem to go back.

Microsoft had acquired a Todo app called Wunderlist few years ago; now known as Microsoft Todo. The integration with the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem is still patchy, but works for me; I don’t depend much on them, it’s merely a reminder tool for me for stuff which can’t be put in the calendar.

The practice of time boxing and putting stuff on the calendar helped me extract time for what I consider an important aspect of my life – learning to play Tabla, an Indian musical instrument. Anybody who has dabbled a bit in music will tell you how much practice it takes to master it. And it’s not an easy task while having a job as well.

Okay, enough of background, let’s move to the book. The book is a bit long one and there are too many takeaways from it, so this article is likely to be long.

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Teaching fosters better learning

DHH Movie Poster
DHH Movie Poster, from IMDB

Few weeks ago I came across a Gujarati movie Dhh whose short description seemed interesting – three students of fifth grade trying to solicit help of magic to pass the exams!

Many times I prefer watching a movie in small pieces because committing two hours at a stretch is difficult, and as a software engineer I’m always on the screen. More screen time becomes a big no.

Finally finished the movie today – it’s streaming on Netflix.

There are these three students who are poor at studies so they fare poorly in the exams. Then they spot a poster of a magic show and bunk their way to the magic show.

Their thought process behind this was only magic can help them pass the exams. One of the students tells about magic to his grandpa, to which he explains it’s nothing but tricks.

He also shows the boy a trick, and asks him to demonstrate it in his school to see what is the reaction of his friends. The smartest guy in the class quickly figures out the trick and this leads to a fight 😂.

These boys decide to write a letter to the magician whose show they’d seen and seek help from him. Few days later they receive a doll named Birbal from the magician and in the accompanying letter, magicians says:

Do just one thing, explain whatever is going to be asked in the exam to Birbal, it helped me a lot and it will also help you. He also says don’t look for any more magic tricks otherwise this doll will not work.

These students take turn to explain the stuff to Birbal and eventually excel in quiz competition and pass the annual exams as well.

At the end the it gets revealed who’s the magician who sent the doll to them, but I won’t mention it here. Go watch the movie if interested 😜.

The director and others who created the movie have so beautifully driven the point that teaching someone else is the best way to sharpen your own knowledge – in this case, the students trying to teach the doll!

It’s no wonder that this movie has won the 65th National Feature Film in Gujarati award.

Long term usage review of 13″ M1 MacBook Pro from the lens of a Windows & Linux user

The story begins with a long time Windows & Linux user getting a taste of the Mac world. I joined a new organization – CoLearn last year. The company gave me a 13″ M1 MacBook Pro (2020) for work usage.

Prior to this, I had never used a Mac, I had been a full time Linux user for nearly a decade, until I had to install Windows to unbrick my phone. Around the same time, Windows Subsystem for Linux was released and I discovered that I can use Windows 10 full time, which lets me do more things than what I can do on Linux (playing games, using some Windows specific software) without affecting what I can already do on Linux (work, coding).

Linux and Windows, are, in general quite adaptive to a range of hardware because the user base is extremely large and they don’t impose restrictions on what the user wishes to use, even if it might not be the best user experience.

The thought process behind Apple products is different – this is something I realized after using iPad and iPhone, there is a much higher focus (if I may not say, utmost) focus on great user experience. Now because of this, if you already have a setup which satisfies your needs in a Windows / Linux environment, expect it to break when you shift to a Mac.

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SPONGE

Sponge book cover

When office commutes were a thing, I used to listen to podcasts. Do I miss commutes? No. Do I miss podcasts, yes, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to listen to podcast in an environment where I am not doing something else. I used to drive during commutes, so listening to podcast on the drive was a good pass time instead of say, listening to music all the time which becomes boring after a while.

I found one such interesting podcast which goes by the name The Sponge Podcast. The podcast is by Ambi Parmeshwaran, who has spent more than forty years in the advertising industry, and launched a book which goes by the same name, Sponge: Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients.

Mr. Ambi has very interesting stories to share from his collective experience in the industry, across various brands & situations he has handled, and also shares a lesson or two he learnt while dealing with those in each episode.

I’m not someone from the advertising industry, not even remotely into a business development / sales kind of role, yet I found the podcast interesting, is a big testimony to the storytelling skills of Mr. Ambi. After all, he’s probably been doing this all his life by way of advertisements.

The podcast has been crafted in an interesting way – he cites references to a lot of books which is related to the episode. When you’re listening to a podcast on a drive, you can’t really remember name of each book that was cited in the episode (at least that’s me), so after finishing the podcast I reached out to Mr. Ambi on Twitter with a suggestion to publish the names of the books on the episode description. That’s when I he suggested reading the book.

The book itself is short about 180 pages, but given that each chapter in the book is delivers some kind of lesson, this constant preaching can be a bit overwhelming. So I took a good two months to finish the book 😂.

For folks who haven’t either listened to the podcast, nor read the book it might probably be a good idea to do so in parallel, because each episode in the podcast maps to one chapter in the book. It could also get a bit boring, because you’re going through the same story twice, but I don’t see a better way to capture the names of the books – some of them are top rated ones which you wouldn’t want to miss if you like business development, leadership, brand management, sales kind of things.

The word SPONGE itself is a framework with an analogy to the sponge often used for cleaning, formed by Mr. Ambi, which stands for:

S – Super active listening
P – Probe and Question
O – Observe and Note
N – New Behaviour to Emulate
G – Get to a Goal
E – Expand, Enlarge, Share

Some of my favourite quotes from the book, in no particular order:

The lesson I learnt was that if you are committed enough to a task, you will find the time to do it and do it well. You will not rest till you have got it right.

Some of the most engaging conversations you might ever have in your life are likely to be with your most challenging customers. You can either dismiss them as a bad dream or you can use them as a springboard to improve yourself.

A satisfied customer will speak about his experience with two people. A dissatisfied customer will speak to twenty about his lousy experience (this was before social media; now multiply that by a factor of ten).

We often tend to underestimate the aesthetic sense of the common man.

If you are committed to your vision, you cannot allow anyone, even a premium paying customer, to derail you.

The time to build a strong relationship is when it seems least important (if someone you know is in a tough spot, that is the time to reach out to him; he may not call you out of fear of being rebuked, but you can call him).

This quote, not by Mr. Ambi himself, but by someone else has been monumental to an important event in India is also mentioned in the book, probably takes the cake:

if you are building a house and the architect has given you the design, you like it, but you feel there are too many pillars and you ask the architect to remove some of the pillars. A few years later, your house falls on your head, whom do you blame? The architect or yourself?

Both the book and podcast are extremely interesting, and you will definitely learn a lesson or two that can be applied in life. Highly recommended.

Book review – The Ride of a Lifetime

Recently I finished reading The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The book is about the journey of Robert Iger who grew from a small position in ABC all the way up to CEO of Disney, he writes about the numerous lessons learned as course of this journey.

The book contains a lot of highlight-worthy quotes which can be implemented in real life and will definitely help in succeeding in one’s life.

It starts with describing the necessary qualities for leadership (Optimism, Courage, Focus, Decisiveness, Curiosity, Fairness, Thoughtfulness, Authenticity, The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection) and throughout there are different situations/instances where they are applied.

My favourite one from the above list is The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. Almost everyone takes shortcuts and avoids perfecting the solution to a given problem. It makes sense when there is time and/or financial constraints, but in order to really make it a good solution, perfectionism is necessary. There are a bunch of studies/articles which say being a perfectionist can make one stressed out or can drive them towards depression.

Life is all about balance, too much or too less of anything – and you have a problem.

My three favourite quotes from the book:

  1. A company’s culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is one of the most important—you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly.
  2. There’s nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don’t possess. True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.
  3. Priorities are the few things that you’re going to spend a lot of time and a lot of capital on. Not only do you undermine their significance by having too many, but nobody is going to remember them all. “You’re going to seem unfocused,” he said. “You only get three.”

Overall, it was a nice and interesting read. It is a mix of biography, stories about the entertainment industry, a bit of history about Disney. Definitely one of the books one should read as a starter for anyone aspiring to be a leader of any kind.

Excellent documentary – The boy who harnessed the wind

Just finished watching a documentary film – The boy who harnessed the wind. An amazing documentary I must say.

It is based on a real story of William Kamkwamba who builds a wind mill and pumps water from a well to irrigate the farms.

The village in Malawi (Africa) where the boy lives has inconsistent rains. Villagers were farming Tobacco previously, but the trees were sold for the wood at throwaway prices because of irregular supply of Tobacco.

He got a chance to go to school where, one day he observes that the headlight on his science teacher’s bicycle glows when he pedals. There he discovers about dynamo that is attached to the bike. He then studies about harnessing Wind energy in the library and this happens when he was expelled from school for non payment of fees.

When famine comes by, he uses this idea to build a windmill using scrap materials, like the radiator fan, a dead battery of an old car and a pump. The windmill so built, charges the battery which in turn powers the pump to pump water from the well.

A key takeaway in this is – there is gold in scrap, provided you know what to do with it! An important lesson in this age of use-and-throw.

The book on exercise you must read

I came across this book titled “Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain” which seemed interesting, so I picked it up on Kindle app and started reading it. It’s a well known fact that exercise is good for the body – it builds up strength in the bones, muscles and keeps the body in condition so that one can function properly.

But exercise boosting brain performance? That sounded very interesting to me, because while I had experienced the clarity of thought, and in general calm feeling after doing exercise, I never knew the exact science behind that.

The author, Dr John, describes in detail how exercise works for the brain – how brain is similar to other muscles in the body, wherein exercise can actually promote brain growth and improve intelligence and learning ability. This is backed by research studies conducted on rodents by various scientists over the years.

Over bodies have evolved over the millions of years to move around and hunt food, it is only animals that move around need a brain. The book cites an example of an underwater animal – Sea Squirt, which has a brain when it is born, but once it attaches itself to a rock or something else, it eats it’s own brain and lives like a plant for rest of it’s lifetime. It eats away it’s own brain because it doesn’t have to move!

An often heard saying about habit formation – one needs to consistently do something for 28 days, then it becomes a habit. The scientific reason behind this is – new neuron cells that are born (neurogenesis) in the brain must be recruited to some learning activity within 28 days, or else they die. Once they are recruited for activity they become part of the brain’s circuity.

The book also in quite detail, describes about stress – and how mild stress is actually good. But high levels of stress actually kill brain cells. One interesting fact that has been mentioned in the book is about how eating fruits and vegetables improves immunity. Over the years, plants evolved so that they cannot be eaten away by animals. So they started producing toxins in the fruits. By eating fruits and vegetables we are subjecting our body to mild stress, so due to body’s defence mechanism, our immunity strengthens, which then helps fight against infections and diseases.

Exercising is extremely good for people who’re stressed out due to various reasons – because stress is essentially a fight or flight response of the body. The wild parallel for this – our body was basically designed to fight wild animals or run away from them, should they be hungry and overpower the man when out for hunting for food. Aerobic exercise does just that. If one doesn’t exercise when stressed out – it causes fat deposits and due to higher levels of cortisol starts killing brain cells.

There are even more interesting studies in the book on how exercise can help against Depression, ADHD, etc. I will highly recommend reading this book for everyone – because it teaches the importance of exercise, and if you’re not exercising, then gives strong motivation to exercise! After all, why one wouldn’t like being more faster and have more focus at things they usually do?

Everybody is a trader and money is a storage device of time

In this world, everybody is a trader. The thing that is traded changes depending on person. A stock market investor trades money in lieu of asset (stock).

Similarly people trade their time to acquire money. Think a bit more and you realize money is a storage device of time in some sense.

The stone age man had to spend time to hunt for food. Modern day person spends time on other economic activities which earns money, so the money can be spent to acquire food, which is one of the basic necessities of life.

There is a saying Time is Money. Considering these facts, it makes a lot of sense.

Money can perhaps buy something other than time – quality of life, not exactly quantifiable. For example you move to a lavish house which gives you happiness.

Headphones and fatigue due to online meetings

I have been doing online meetings long before we had the pandemic and lockdown. Over the years the duration of the calls started increasing since I was working for a startup. Once the call durations increased I started feeling a weird kind of exhaustion at the end of every call, and I couldn’t exactly point out the reason behind that.

I was previously using a JBL E65BTNC headset for calls & music, which got damaged due to rough use and got crushed in some bag or something (don’t recall exactly). After that I purchased Razer Tiamat 7.1 V2, a surround headset.

Sometime during the use of the JBL I discovered the Active Noise Cancellation in the JBL headset was causing a kind of ear pressure leading to headache. Perhaps my ears don’t tolerate ANC. This was one of the reasons for buying a headset without ANC. The Razer headsets have good noise isolation.

Once I switched to the Razer headset, it significantly reduced the headache and fatigue problem, but still a little bit of discomfort was there especially after long duration calls. Eventually I discovered that it was because of the audio volume. While listening to music, or say playing a game, you get to listen to studio quality music which doesn’t have any kind of noise and so it is comfortable at higher volumes.

I think the meeting software, Google Meet/Zoom/Teams/etc strip down the audio quality for faster, real-time transmission and/or the quality of audio equipment that others on the call are using are usually not studio quality ones, so that causes more fatigue because the encoding/decoding process adds a bit of noise in it. When you are wearing a headphones with noise isolation or noise cancellation, you tend to notice minor variations in the sound.

Came across this post by Shantanu Goel about why he stopped using headphones for health reasons. I could instantly relate to it, I recently switched jobs and the new company gave me a Macbook which doesn’t support the surround headset I have.

So I was forced to use the Macbook’s speaker & built-in microphone. The M1 Macbook Pro’s speakers are quite good – the volume can fall short a bit if you are in a noisy environment though. I tried recording my Tabla on it and was stunned by the audio quality that got recorded, it doesn’t pick up any background noise in it. I live near a construction site and none of that noise got captured, which is truly amazing. Apple advertises it as a studio quality microphone, quite true to the statement.

Not all seem to agree on the studio quality part though. I guess it all depends on the reference scale, which is often defined by one’s past experience.

So the key learning here is, for long duration meetings use speakers. If not possible use headphones without ANC (or turn off ANC) to reduce fatigue.

Owning the networking equipment in your network

rectangular gray corded device on black rack
Networking equipment

It seems there’s a new trend in India amongst Internet Service Providers to supply their own router.

The primary reason ISPs do this is to reduce the amount of on-site support required, which is a very much valid reason.

When an ISP has to deal with multiple user supplied equipment – it increases their work as they have to train their staff to understand the configuration semantics of different devices the users may bring.

While ISP supplying their own equipment is in itself harmless and in fact, for the consumer it is a good option as it is least of their concern that a device they might have procured will work with the said ISP. All the consumer is interested in is a working internet connection.

But as it stands for pretty much everything in this world, there are always two sides to a thing, the darker side being privacy and security concerns, as pointed out in this IndiaToday article.

These devices often run customized software which usually have long update cycles, so there may be zero day / security bugs which are not fixed for a long duration which can possibly compromise your network. That definitely sounds scary.

In addition to that, there is a privacy concerns, these routers can be used for analysing browsing patterns – data mining, creating a user profile out of what you do with your internet connection. In last few years, initiatives like LetsEncrypt have done a lot of benefit to the internet since it gave free SSL certificates for everyone.

There have been technological advancements to help with user privacy such as DNS Over TLS and DNS Over HTTPS in the last few years. With these, the ISP cannot read your DNS queries, which is a good/bad thing, depending on how you look at it – access to illegal sites cannot be blocked at a DNS level which was trivial earlier, all you had to do is redirect the traffic on port 53 to your own DNS server which will return some fake IP address for a blocked website. At the same time, it gave the power to the operators of networks and such devices to block access to legitimate websites as well.

Even with DoH/DoT it is still possible for an ISP/router to know which website one is browsing (over HTTPS), by inspecting TLS negotiation packets. The SSL infrastructure previously allowed only one single SSL website for a given IP address. If one were to host multiple SSL websites on a single server – it required the clients connecting to the server to support TLS which has an extension Server Name Indication (SNI). The older SSL protocols have been deprecated now, so all HTTPS connections happen over TLS. So for every HTTPS connection in the initial negotiation the hostname you are connecting to is exposed. There is a detailed article, with packet dumps on how ISPs exploit this SNI feature of TLS packets to block websites.

The most recent security standard – that is TLS 1.3 has a new extension to circumvent the above limitation, which is Encrypted Client Hello (previously Encrypted SNI). In this the SNI payload is itself encrypted, so no router or ISP can read what site is being requested from a given IP address.

Unsurprisingly, TLS 1.3 / ECH / ESNI has been blocked in certain countries which wield control over it’s people by way of controlling what content they can browse on the Internet. Until TLS 1.3 is widely deployed – both at the server and client end (browsers), the privacy concerns will remain. One can’t exactly say when that will happen.

Furthermore, it is very much possible to correlate the connection tracking logs provided by conntrack in Linux (most of these routers run some form of embedded Linux) with the DNS logs to get a even more detailed picture. There are some devices in the higher price segment which report how much % of traffic is consumed by different categories – such as Social Media, etc using Deep Packet Inspection (fishing for SNI is one example of DPI).

Such data mining becomes computationally very expensive when the processing has to be done at the NOC/data centre level, relatively easier on individual devices like routers because the amount of traffic to be handled is less (packets per second). The computational power available at such embedded devices has been ever increasing – for example how quickly Raspberry Pi evolved to quite a powerful single board computer since it’s original launch in 2012.

That said, the reason to have your own networking equipment instead of ISPs – there is a wide range of choice available in the free market and often with better performance/security. Granted, there is nothing top secret level going on in a home, or say a home office network, but at the end it’s a matter of choice. Why should someone force you to use certain equipment?