Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book Review: Human Universe, by Brian Cox

This is a decent run-through of various topics/questions related to human existence: our place in the universe (in a cosmological sense), our place on the earth (in an evolutionary sense), the possibility of other intelligent life forms in the universe, and so on and so forth. Some of the scientific concepts I thought were well explained and I was able to follow and understand. Others just went over my head and I guess I'll have to try watching the TV series in the hope of finding better explanations there. Overall though this book left me with a good appreciation of the natural world and an appreciation of the human mind in how we've progressively (slowly but surely) advanced our understanding of it all. Below are some quotes from the book that stood out for me:
"The trick as an educated citizen of the twenty-first century is to realise that nature is far stranger and more wonderful than human imagination and the only appropriate response to new discoveries is to enjoy one's inevitable discomfort, take delight in being shown to be wrong and learn something as a result." 
"Just have a look at something – the smallest, most trivial little thing – and enjoy trying to figure out how it works. That is science." 
"... the natural world is orderly and simple, and can be described with great economy by a small set of laws." 
"Scientific predictions are not perfect. Scientific theories are never correct. Scientific results are always preliminary. Whole fields of study can be rendered obsolete by new discoveries." 
"It is surely true that there is no absolute meaning or value to our existence when set against the limitless stars. We are allowed to exist by the laws of nature and in that sense we have no more value that the stars themselves. And yet there is self-evidently meaning in the universe because my own existence, the existence of those I love, and the existence of the entire human race means something to me."

Monday, 10 July 2017

Book Review: Carlo Ancelotti: Quiet Leadership – Winning hearts, minds and matches

A light, enjoyable read. This is not your typical football biography book but more so leadership and management lessons from the footballing life of Carlo Ancelotti. In terms of leadership, there's a focus on "soft" leadership and that's what gives this book its novel touch. Some of the key repeated themes to be found throughout the book are how a calm, empathetic, patient mindset can be advantageous (and sometimes disadvantageous) and how language development, relationship building and trust are critical to team success. Below is a small selection of quotes from the book that stood out for me.
"There is power and authority in being calm and measured, in building trust and making decisions cooly..." 
"When you watch Vito Corleone in The Godfather, do you see a weak, quiet man or do you see a calm, powerful man  in charge of his situation?" 
"Nothing is as important as being loved and valued." 
"... it is important to learn the language as a way into the culture." 
"Bothering to learn the language is a reliable indicator of the commitment of the player not just to playing the game, but to flourishing in the new environment. This is possibly why English players underperform in foreign leagues." 
"My opinion is that players do their best when they are comfortable, not when they are uncomfortable." 
"When I talk of players being comfortable, I do not mean in their playing – I mean in their minds." 
"The players remember the occasions when I get angry because it happens rarely. If was to get angry every single day, they would not remember and it would not be effective on them." 
"We need both analytics and instinct because eventually those who do not understand the data will be eaten by it."

Book Review: Hegarty on Creativity – There are no rules


Decent little book full of short reflections on what it means to create and what it means to adopt a creative mindset. I've picked off the quotes that stood out for me and typed them below. Anyone reading and liking this book will also enjoy listening to some of John Hegarty's public talks which can be found on YouTube (e.g. here and here).
"You have to be supremely confident in your ability to achieve something outstanding."
"Start small, start compact, and suddenly you'll have begun to create."
"... often the right idea will come to you when you're not even thinking."
"... if you don't believe in what you're doing, why should anyone else."
"When I'm asked, When do you do your best thinking? My answer is always, When I'm not thinking."
"Too much thinking jeopardises the creative process..."
"A cynic might sound smart, sometimes even witty, but rarely are they productive. So surround yourself with positivity and possibility. With people who challenge and question. And as soon as anyone resorts to cynicism, move on."
"In the end, everything is connected and the more connections you make the more interesting your work will become."
"As important as practice is, there's no point constantly practicing unless you're perfecting whatever it is that you're working on."
"Practice only makes perfect if you make progress."
"Whatever you're doing, whatever difficulties you're encountering, remember how lucky you are and be sure to have fun."

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain


I really enjoyed reading this book the last couple of months and I can easily see it being in the top-10 favourite non-fiction books list of every "quiet" person that comes across it. It is for me. Definitely one of the best popular psychology books that I've read and will probably ever read. The author does a good job discussing concepts like assertiveness, certainty, charisma, charm, confidence, introversion, sensitivity, seriousness, shyness, sociability and verbal fluency in an understandable, relatable and not overly academic manner. If you haven't already, it's worth listening to the one of the author's talks at TED (20 minutes) or Google (40 minutes) before getting the book.

In closing, below are some of my favourite quotes from the book:
"As with other complimentary pairings – masculinity and femininity, East and West, liberal and conservative – humanity would be unrecognisable, and vastly diminished, without both personality styles [introversion/extroversion]."
"Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man's world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we've turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform."
"Nor are introverts necessarily shy. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating."
"The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up."
"We fail to realise that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world."
"So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don't let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don't force yourself to seek breadth." 
"Probably the most common – and damaging – misunderstanding about personality type is that introverts are antisocial and extroverts are pro-social. But as we've seen, neither formulation is correct; introverts and extroverts are differently social."

Friday, 9 June 2017

Trip to Makkah and Madinah in the first ten days of Ramadhan


Went with the wife to Makkah and Madinah for the first 10 days of Ramadhan. We stayed in Makkah for the first 4.5 days (5 nights) at the Elaf Al Mashaer Hotel and then in Madinah for the second 4.5 days (4 nights) at the Rove Al Madinah Hotel. Both hotels we booked ourselves via the booking.com website. We flew via Saudi Airlines which we also booked ourselves direct from the saudia.com website. Car transfers we arranged with a Pakistani (not Arab thank God!) company called Al-Falah Transport Services (contact details in the comments) which was on point: good prices, good communication and good service overall. The visas we arranged with a London based company called Hassan Hajj Tours. Overall the total cost of the trip for two persons not incluing clothes and dates shopping was £3300 (accommodation [£1500], flights [£1100], visas [£300], transfers [£200], food [£200]).

Makkah


In Makkah because of the heat and the crowds it's not so easy going back and forth between the Mosque and the hotel for each Salah. Thus the routine that we gravitated towards over the course of our stay was as follows:
  • Fajr (4am) – we would go to the Mosque half an hour before the Adhan, pray and then make our way back to the hotel half an hour after Salah.
  • Between Fajr and Dhuhr – this is when we would get our longest stretch of sleep.
  • Dhuhr (12:30pm) and Asr (3:30pm) – we would make our way to the Mosque half an hour before Dhuhr, pray Dhuhr, hang around until Asr, pray Asr and then make our way back to the hotel half an hour after Salah.
  • Between Asr and Maghrib – we would get some rest at the hotel, freshen up and pack our Iftaar snacks.
  • Maghrib (7pm) – we would get to the Mosque (sometimes inside and sometimes outside) a few minutes before the Adhan and break our fast with dates, yoghurt drink and whatever other little goodies we had with us (croissants, Loacker wafers etc).
  • Between Maghrib and Eisha – we would get in a Tawaf on the first floor. Sometimes we would do the first few circuits on the ground floor and then head up to the first floor when it got too busy and congested.
  • Eisha (9pm) and Tarawih (9:30pm) – we would finish Tawaf before the Adhan, continue half a circuit more to the opposite side of the Mosque and then find a good spot to pray on the mats.
  • Between Tarawih and Fajr – we would go to the third and fourth floors of the Clock Tower building to get some dinner and to purchase some snacks from Abraaj Hypermarket for the next day's Iftaar, then proceed to our hotel to do our social media browsing for the day and then on to the hotel's dining area for some pre-Fajr breakfast.

Madinah


In Madinah it wasn't as strenuous as it was in Makkah to go back and forth between the hotel and the Mosque and so we tended to come and go between each Salah. Restaurants and takeaways close to the Mosque are in very short supply so we highly recommend arranging breakfast and dinner at your hotel if this is an option. Lastly, for clothes (Jubbas, Jilbabs etc) and dates shopping, Taibah Commercial Center outside the Mosque has plenty of options. You don't need to go anywhere else. There's a Bin Dawood supermarket in here also for you to stock up on snacks and fruits.

Horrible experience flying Saudi Airlines

I flew back from Medinah to London Heathrow airport last Sunday night via Jeddah. The experience was a nightmare to say the least! It was an experience closer to being prodded along by prison guards than being helped along by commercial airline staff.

First: the Saudi Airlines staff at the check-in counter at Medinah airport were horrible. Best way to describe them? Rude, arrogant, snotty. Very similar to the Jeddah airport staff if you've ever experienced that! They would not answer any questions asked of them and instead were more interested in the conversations they were having on their phones. They would operate at a snail's pace but when they were ready to do some work they would wave with their hands and yell "Yallah! Yallah! Hurry up!" On top of that they didn't have the courtesy to notify passengers checking in that our flights had been delayed by half an hour. Absolutely ridiculous.

Second: when it was time to board the plane, the Saudi Airlines staff were again operating at a snail's pace letting through maybe one or two persons every minute. Probably busy again talking to each other rather than doing some work! I was at the back of the line so couldn't tell. When they realised they had 75% of the plane still to board and now very little time to do it in they started ushering everybody on board with very little checking. They were so panicked at this point I saw them physically pushing an old Bangladeshi lady just because she took a second too long to kneel down and pick up her bag. Of course they would not push a Saudi or Western national like this. Absolutely ridiculous.

Third: when we arrived at Jeddah airport for the transfer, it was only by chance that a fellow passenger informed me and my wife that we might have to pick up our baggage and re-check it in. It didn't occur to a single member of the Saudi Airlines staff to inform us of this. When transferring between flights with any other airlines at most other airports this is handled automatically by the airline. It's fine that we had to do it ourself. That's not the biggest problem. What really irritates me is that it did not occur to a single member of the Saudi Airlines staff to inform passengers about this. All of the other passengers who were transferring got a huge shock when word spread that we had to collect and re-check in our bags. It was pure luck that we didn't all proceed to the second flight without collecting our bags.

Once we got onto the plane for the Jeddah to London flight we were bemused to be met with smiles by the on-board staff. It had been a good few hours during which the only emotions we had received from Saudi Airlines staff were sarcasm and disinterest. The ground staff really need to go through the same training as the on-board staff.

All in all: a nightmare experience! It's very unlikely I will be flying with Saudi Airlines again any time soon and definitely in my opinion worth paying a bit more money and flying with a carrier that takes customer service a little more seriously.

Friday, 14 April 2017

3-day trip: Cotswolds, Forest of Dean, Wye Valley

Headed to the West of England this week with my wife for a short 3-day trip (Monday morning to Thursday afternoon). We based ourselves in Howle Hill, Ross-on-Wye for the evenings and hopped between the Cotswolds, Forest of Dean and Wye Valley in the daytimes. Below is a full itinerary of our trip:
  • Monday morning – we caught the GWR train from London Paddington to Gloucester station. (We booked the train a month before the trip for £68 return trip for 2-persons.)
  • Monday afternoon – we picked up our car for the trip from the Europcar office which was a 20-minute walk from the station. (We booked the car a month before the trip for £50 for three days plus £10 for roadside assistance plus £12 for car insurance which we booked separately with iCarhireinsurance.) After picking up our car we headed to the Sainsbury's right nearby to stock up on all our food for the trip.
  • Monday evening – we settled in our accommodation (Ivy Studio) on Howle Hill in Ross-on-Wye and went for a short walk around the surrounding area. (We booked our accommodation a month before the trip via Airbnb for £172 for three nights inclusive of the £22 Airbnb service fee.)
  • Tuesday morning – we drove out from our accommodation to Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds. It was meant to be an hour's drive according to Google Maps but turned out to be over an hour-and-a-half. Longer than we would have liked.
  • Tuesday afternoon – we picked up our hired cycles from Hartwells Cotswold Cycle Hire (£14 per-bike for full day hire) and then cycled our circular route from Bourton-the-Water to Lower Slaughter to Upper Slaughter to Lower Swell and then back to our starting point. Our experience was that the area is better for walking than cycling. The cycle paths were non-complete and we found ourselves on the roads and footpaths more than we would have liked.
  • Tuesday evening – we drove back to our accommodation.
  • Wednesday morning – we drove from our accommodation to the Forest of Dean. This was a much shorter drive than the previous day. Just 30 mins.
  • Wednesday afternoon – we picked up our hired cycles from Dean Forest Cycles (£18 per-bike for full day hire) and followed the circular route suggested by them passing Cannop Ponds and New Fancy View along the way. This was a much more enjoyable cycle ride than the previous day. The cycle path was clear, well-connected and well-signposted all the way through.
  • Wednesday evening – we stopped off at Symonds Yat on the way back to our accommodation for a beautiful view of the Wye Valley. Well worth the stopover.
  • Thursday morning – we drove back to Gloucester from our accommodation and returned our car.
  • Thursday afternoon – we walked to the train station through Gloucester town centre and caught the train back to London Paddington.
I've uploaded some pictures of the trip to my Flickr account here.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Book Review: Saladin, by John Man

I should but I don't buy or read many history books. I was gifted this book and on flicking through the first couple of pages for some reason or other it caught my attention and it found itself on the top of my to-read pile! It's an easy, to-the-point read. I can't vouch for its level of historical accuracy because I'm not a historian but it's for sure intriguing to come across a book in which an English author attempts to present a Muslim historical figure as the protagonist in his story. If nothing else, the book will definitely give you a feel for the environment in which Saladin (Salahuddin) lived (the "Near East" in the 12th Century) and the main characters – friend and foe (Nur al-Din, Reynald of Ch√Ęttilon, Richard 'the Lionheart' etc) – with whom he crossed paths.