Why are Non-Fiction Books so Boring?

I read a lot of non-fiction. But I seldom finish the book. I find that as the book goes along, the incremental insight gained per chapter keeps reducing, till it is no longer worth my time to keep reading.

For a while I thought that this was my problem. I do know that my reading speed is generally less than my friends. My wife reads at twice the speed that I read, for example.

But that is not the reason. I have compared notes with others who read non-fiction. And most people don’t finish their non-fiction books, especially if they read a lot of non-fiction and there’s another book waiting for them. The problem is widespread, if not universal.

I have a hypothesis for why this is so. Non-fiction books are typically written around a set of concepts, notions, historical perspectives etc. Often these concepts, while original, can be concisely written in the form of an article in a journal or a magazine. Or just a blog post. However, there is no model to monetize that other than the ridiculously low fee the print media industry, itself under threat, might pay you.

If you think that your ideas have power, the only way to monetize it in any substantial way writing about them, is to write a book. A book has certain definitional boundaries. It has to be say a hundred pages or more. The fatter it is, the more justifiable is the price of $20 or $30 or whatever. So you end up writing page after page, chapter after chapter on ideas that don’t really have the legs to go that far. In the process you make a book that can’t hold the reader’s interest till the end.

I am being a little foolhardy in bringing this up right now, when I am writing my maiden book myself. It’ll be a business book, and I can just hear you say, “Well let’s see what your book turns out to be, Basab.” Well, Gaurav and I are hoping it will be packed with insightful goodness and will hold your attention till the end. And now that I’ve put this post out there, it gives us a goal – get the reader to finish the book.

A Better Year

This year has been a trying year for many of us. In the US and most of the West, unemployment is high and a gradual recovery is the best we can hope for. In the IT world, in India and elsewhere, things are much better at the end of the year but still a far cry from the hypergrowth that we’ve become used to.

For me personally, this has been a challenging year. I started out the year looking to switch gears and do something else after my four year stint at Gridstone. But a family health issue has become a priority that trumps everything else. This will require my wife’s and my full attention for a while. If there is one thing I hope the next year will bring is better health for my son.

In the meanwhile, I am working with startups and interesting companies, helping them to the extent I can. It keeps the juices flowing and hopefully I can add some value to their business.

This blog is now like an old friend to me. A constant companion, through good times and tough times. Always there for a couple of hours of enjoyable company. By extension, you, my readers are like old friends too. I feel like I know the regular commentors well even if I’ve never met you.

And the silent majority, the readers who read but never join the discussion, thank you for coming back again and again. Here’s a humble suggestion. If you do one thing in 2010, join the discussion. Not necessarily on this blog. On any blog. On issues and topics that matter to you. Be heard. And hear yourself. It will feel good. Like you are plugging in to this massive collective brain that is humanity online. Like exercising your vote. It can be empowering.

I hope all of you have a great 2010. Or just a better year, perhaps. Happiness is a choice. I hope you choose to be happy.


Indian Church in Fremont

Fremont has a very high percentage of immigrants among the city residents. Especially North Fremont, where I live has a sizable Indian crowd. Most, like us are immigrants. Because of which Indian food, groceries and Bollywood movies are all within a ten minute drive, which is nice. Recently an Indian Church has come up close to where I live. I have never seen one before.

The proportion of Indian Christians amongst immigrant Indians may be higher than in India but still should not be more than say 10%. And given that there will be plenty of options on churches to join in the US, I wonder what drives the need for an Indian church. Could it be that Syrian Catholics (or other Indian Christian communities) from India practice their faith differently enough to feel the need for a separate church? Or is it the need to share their common, distinctive culture which an American church does not fulfill?

Ideas from the New York Times

The NY Times Magazine’s latest issue is on “ideas”. The ideas are of mixed standards, probably because they were force fitted into an alphabetical list as much as possible (“hey, we don’t have any ideas for X Y Z. We can’t discriminate against the bottom three so can you go and find any old idea.”). But here are some that I thought were great. Go read the whole thing if you can.

Here goes (alphabetically, of course):

Drunken Ultimatums. Revenge trumps rationality. An experiment with drunks shows how.

Empty Beer Bottles Make Better Weapons. The fizz in the full ones causes them to break at lower impacts.


KenKen Puzzles

KENKEN Puzzles - NYTimes.com-2

In the last two months I have gotten hooked on to a puzzle called KenKen. It is similar to Sudoku, but different. I never played Sudoku much so I am not the best person to do a compare and contrast. But like Sudoku it comes to us from Japan. It was invented by Tetsuya Miyamoto, a Mathematics professor.

Will Shortz of the New York Time explains how to play it.

The New York Times has other coverage, besides hosting new puzzles every day.

Try it. It’ll give you hours of enjoyment. Also, if you have school going children, especially elementary school kids, this is a good way to make practicing arithmetic or logic, fun.

Funny Chart

Andrew Biggs compares spending on veterinary services and healthcare spending in the US. The case he makes is that the issue with healthcare is not the rate of growth of spending but the absolute amount of spending. He presents this chart as evidence of both. But it is a totally inappropriate way to represent the data.

The first thing that the chart hits you with is that the ‘slope’ of both lines is roughly the same. And the fact that Biggs’s conclusion is that the growth rate over the period is roughly the same for both might lead you to think that they are connected. But they aren’t. The lines are on different scales and so a comparison of slopes is meaningless. If you interpolate the data points, you get growth rates over the entire period of 267% for healthcare and 261% for vetcare. Close enough that the conclusions don’t change. But that’s not the point.

A chart of this kind (Y1/Y2) is the wrong choice to show similar growth rates. I could take any two time series and design the Y1, Y2 scales in such a way that they appear to be growing at the same rate. The right way of doing this would be an indexed chart such as is used to compare the performance of two stocks or a stock against an index.


The Broader Context of Swatting Flies

obama-could-hurt-a-fly-the-caucus-blog-nytimescomA couple of weeks back, President Obama swatted a fly in the White House. It did not go unnoticed in the media. Since this blog is about global trends, it would be remiss if I didn’t cover this important event and put it in the context of fly-swatting around the world.

The President is clearly a fit man with great reflexes. During the election campaign he sank a three pointer on demand for the camera which earned him my everlasting admiration. This time he swatted a fly that was bothering him during an interview in the White House. Nailing a fly is never easy, however, I am somewhat skeptical about the bona fides of the White House fly. Was it a house fly? If so, is it possible that the North American house fly is an entirely different species from the flies that I grew up with in India? They do look somewhat fat and happy over here, compared to the lean, mean third world variety. I don’t believe – and I say this from considerable experience – that a human being can swat one of those Indian flies with their hands. With a fly swatter, maybe, but not your bare hands. I mean no disrespect to the Prez, but that fly was not the real thing.


Why do so many NBA games go to Overtime

There is a fascinating analysis of NBA scores by Jeff Ely and Toomas Hinnosaar on Ely’s blog Cheap Talk. Read through the comments as well which try to explain the data.


The data plotted in the chart is the margin of victory for the home team at the end of regulation (negative if they lose). There is a very pronounced spike at zero, implying that the % of games that are tied and go to OT is much higher than if it was closer to a normal distribution around a mean of zero.

There is a great video if you click through to the post, which shows how the distribution of the lead of the home team changes in the last 40 seconds of the game. Things look pretty normal till about 20 seconds are left. Something happens in the last 20 seconds that makes things converge to a tie.

The comments from readers try to explain this. The explanations that ring true to me are:

1. Shot selection – If the trailing team is within 3, it will attempt a 3 point shot. If it is within 2, it will typically go for a higher percentage shot for 2 points.
2. Fouling to stop the clock – The trailing team will keep fouling to stop the clock in the last 20s which will typically expand the lead. If they luck out and pull even, they stop fouling. If they pull ahead, the other team starts fouling.

Said differently, if the two teams are separated by 3 or fewer points in the final 20s and the trailing team has the ball, they will try to run out the clock and make a final shot attempt to tie the game (or win it if they are trailing by 1). If the leading team has the ball, the other team will foul them in the hope that they will miss a free shot and they get possession of the ball.

Ely offers his explanation here. Another thread of discussion on this is on Yglesias.

Conflicts of Interest in Healthcare

Atul Gawande’s piece The Cost Conundrum in the New Yorker has created quite a buzz. Apparently, President Obama has been recommending it as a must-read. Peter Orzag, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget for the administration, referred to Gawande’s article a couple of times in the last week.

The reason Gawande’s seminal piece has caught the attention of the blogosphere and the administration is because it uses data to point the finger where so far in the healthcare debate, it hasn’t – at doctors themselves. It’s easy to blame the insurance companies or the pharmaceutical companies. They are big, powerful corporations and it is natural to assume that must be twisting the system to their advantage thus raising costs for everyone. Doctors, whom we trust with our care, are much more difficult to confront. But confront them we must. It appears that the root of the problem in American healthcare is over-care.

Doctors are paid by insurance companies (or patients) by the amount of work they do (number of visits) not by the results. Insurance companies pay a standard rate per visit. They make no distinction between the rates they pay to a doctor that provides great care and one that provides poor care. The doctor therefore has all the incentive to increase the number visits and none to increase the quality of care (above a certain minimum, obviously, otherwise they won’t be left with any patients).