I am a little nuts about books. I buy a lot of them, read a lot of them and always keep thinking about what that book I saw other day is trying to say. But what I noticed is that I read books for 2 reasons – one is just for pleasure (like 2001 Space Odyssey) and another is to learn more about certain thing. The 2nd part is where I am having some issues off late. I mean I read it, write down and take notes but then after a while I forget all about it. I always wanted to do book reviews and use that as an anchor to retain certain stuff with me. I am going to do that starting from tomorrow. Every Sunday I will write-up a review of a book. I know 50 books is a way too small a number for the amount of books I own, but it’s a start.

Microfinance – Good, Bad and Ugly

Microfinance is a one of those ideas which has been around for a long time but people have shown a lot of interest in it only recently (trend link). Now a days most people understand what it is and usually have  lot of positive things to say about it. But like any other idea, it has those 3 sides – good, bad and ugly. I stumbled up on the last 2 only in the past few weeks. After reading Yunus‘s book – it was very inspiring to learn about Microfinance and how it is going to pull a lot of people out of poverty. I was a very firm believer in that. But I think the reality is far different than what we find in books.

Banker to the Poor

The other 2 books in context are – “A fistful of rice” by Vikram Akula and “Confessions of a Microfinance heretic” by Hugh Sinclair.

A Fistful of RiceConfessions of a Microfinance Heretic

Vikram Akula was a poster child of Microfinance – couple of years back, in 2007 when I learned about him – I was so inspired and I had dreams of going back to India and working for SKS Microfinance. I sent emails to SKS Microfinance about it but never heard back. The technology stack was all .NET so I couldn’t find a way to work for them. Later in 2008 I attended a talk by Vikram Akula at University of Chicago and was completely inspired. As I read his book – which showcases all the troubles he faced to start his firm – it stuck me how he was forgetting the basic tenets of Microfinance. He has been working in it for almost 10 years and was dreaming up to connect Microfinance with capitalistic market based profit making companies. His idea is cool on paper, but the implementation is wrong.

When you get to poor people who are way below the poverty line and you offer them these micro-loans – the core idea should be helping them. Just helping them. Not even thinking in terms of “Oh, I am here to rescue you out of your poverty-ness”. No. Just helping them and showcasing them certain best practices is what one can do. There is no way one person, one system can massively move people out of poverty. If you think a little deeper – the systems which we have in place are enablers of this poverty and poor people. Nothing within the system can really fix it. But if we go around trying to do so – it would be a failure.

Which is exactly what happened to Vikram Akula’s SKS Microfinance. Even though Yunus never liked linking Microfinance with for profit making companies – he couldn’t stop Akula. And in 2010 – SKS collapsed. When a lot of poor people who borrowed money and couldn’t pay back – started committing suicides – the AP Govt passed a law to ban all microfinance activity in the state, thereby bringing down SKS. When you bring in investors who are looking for returns there is going to be a pressure on the company to churn profits always. This in turn will put pressure on the micro lenders to perform better which is passed on to the poor people who are already struggling to survive.

Hugh Sinclair explains it much better in his book. He worked in various microfinance firms for about 10+ years and saw how the reality mismatches with the fantasy story that everyone is weaving around him. Poor people are struggling but they are also human. They have desires as well – the money they started to borrow – got used for one time entertainment values rather than use it as an investment. If you are poor and hungry, a entertainment is far more distracting than a entrepreneurial thought. They do want to get better but after their basic needs are met. So any money thrown at them will first go towards their basic needs and then to uplift yourself.  Maslow talked about this so long ago. Sinclair also talks about how big banks have gotten into microfinance which is a $70 billion market and trying to make hay day out of it. In all this Grameen Bank (not Grameen Foundation – checkout the comment by Hugh below!) is an exception. It also functions as a bank, because of some laws passed in Bangladesh and may be that is the way to go. A Microfinance company can become a bank after certain time or reaching targets and then start thinking of profits- rather the other way around where the big banks get in with sole motive of making profits on the back of struggling poor.

My next book I am planning to read is – Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid – which Akula says was his inspiration to try to make a profitable public company on top of idealistic mico lending company.

Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Memory and Expertise

I am reading this fascinating book called – Moonwalking with Einstein. It’s a story of a journalist who went to write about World memory championship for Slate and ended up being challenged by one of the participants and trained for a year and won the championship the following year. It’s really cool book. The book in general is his one year delving into this memory learning techniques and also explaining a lot about how our memories work and what it means to have a good memory.

Moonwalking with Einstein

One thing I read in there stuck with me. He talks about Chess champions-  where they did a study of average chess players and world class chess players, they found out that the difference between them is – basically memory. A chess champion is good because he/she can remember thousands of chess positions. It’s totally true. When I was playing chess long time back, it was all about memorizing positions and improvising on a stable position. They also found out that these chess champions didn’t have great IQ or exceptional memory when it came to remembering their shopping list. What they also found out was that when they were given a randomly arranged chess board to remember they had a hard time to remember it.

So what it means is that – they needed context to remember chess positions, they needed a story to remember a chess position. They also took a brain scans of experts and novice players and saw that for an expert every position lit up the parts of the brain which holds memory and for novices, the learning parts of the brain.

This gives an unusual twist on expertise. I believe this applies to any field, including writing software. If you think about it, when you are writing a program and say you are an expert at it – what your mind does is look in your memory to find similar scenarios from the past and how you solved it. A software expert is someone who knows how to solve a particular problem using software and it usually means that they have already solved these problems or similar ones in the past.

So, how do you build this memory whose other side is expertise? Remember Malcolm Gladwell talked about 10,000 hours of practice? There is no other way. Practice is what helps one to build such a strong memory and the outcome of that is expertise. This may sound very obvious, but there is a perception of Intelligence out there which is purely wrong. People assume, some people are smart and some aren’t. But that is a lock in position.

I believe nature plays a role. Some people are gifted and they are exception to the rule. But for the rest of us, it’s all about practice.

November Books

I buy and read a lot of books. But there has been no pattern to it. I mean, I start like 5 books and then close up on them in like a year. But whats happening with that mode is – I do get to think about ideas a little longer (or forget about them and re-read them) but I am missing the connections. I like it when I read a couple of books and my mind when it’s idle, just starts to connect things. Like when I was reading The Whole Brain Child (Highly recommend it for parents and would be parents) – I was able to connect a lot of ideas to how we perceive time – past, present and future.

To give a structure – I am going to try a new method. I am going to try to read and finish 3-4 books next month. I will take notes and document all the ways that my mind creates connections. I will write a post about it at the end of the month. Here are the 4 books I am considering. At the outset it may looks this is a total random selection, but I see some similarities in them. And that is the goal of reading this month to make the connections.

Tracing my Creative Self

I am a strong believer of creativity. I believe that’s the only thing that differentiates us from each other is how creative we are. Anything could be copied if tried hard enough – not creativity. I think everyone is creative and I believe it’s just a matter of time, care and nurturing to bring the creative self out.

Creativity means many things to many people. For me, finding creative solutions to everyday problems. For someone it could be crafting the best and innovative curriculum. Depending up on what is most important to us we try to seek creativity in that area.

Have you ever used a drawing book where you get a tracing paper on top of the diagram? I think creativity is just like that. It’s already in there within us and we just need to trace it out in our lives. Recently I have started to read a book which gave me one of the most important tool of my life – “The Artist’s way“. The last time I read that book, I was so over joyed by the first chapter that I stopped reading it! I started doing this exercise of “Morning Pages” and it has forever changed my life. Now I have decided to continue reading the book.

It’s a long and exciting journey of finding and tracing out my creative self and I am looking forward to it. In addition to doing my journaling every day as a process from the book – I have also set aside time for my “Artist Date” every week. An Artist Date is some specified amount of time where you spend with yourself nurturing your creative self. Last week I went out and watched a movie. This week I am planning on to go to Citylights bookstore in San Francisco.

The Artist\'s Way