Book review: Gang Leader for a day

Just finished reading Gang Leader for a day by Sudhir Venkatesh. I had first read about this book in Freakonomics where Levitt & Dubner talk about the economics of a drug gang and how a low level worker in a gang barely makes minimum wages. It had piqued my interest even at that time, so I picked it up next time I was heading for a long flight. Its the best sociology book I have read for a long time (maybe ever), that makes a group, a lifestyle come alive. Its not fiction, but its absorbing enough to rival great fiction.

It is written by a graduate student at University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh. He is doing a survey on poverty in the projects (the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in South-side Chicago) in 1989. Some gang members from the Black Kings think he is from a rival gang and hold him overnight. He becomes friendly with the gang leader JT and spends the next six years hanging around with the gang, learning how they operate, how the economics work, what lives in the projects is life, how the gang thinks of itself not as a “gang” but a “community group”, how well-meaning governmental plans never end up helping the poorest, how the police is often working in hand with the gangs.

Venkatesh articulates some of my own dissatisfaction with academic life. When I was at Brown University and at UC Berkeleu, it felt too isolated, too ivory tower. When I discovered the web, and how you could build for it and constantly iterate, it seemed a far more exciting prospect than sitting in a lab doing made up experiments on people. He writes about this again and again, how to isolation of researcher from the very people they are studying bothers him.

Please add a comment if you have read this book. Would love to know what others thought.

“4 hour workweek” is for those who don’t love what they do

At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the copy of “4-hour workweek” that had been languishing on my bookshelf. While its an interesting read, I think I disagree with one of its central messages. Tim Ferriss mentions this again and again – what he does for fun and profit are two different things. I try to live my life so that there is lot of overlap between what I do for fun and profit. I did science because I enjoyed it, I did user experience design because product design is fun. And I run SlideShare, because there is nowhere else I would rather be at this moment.

That being said, I am more convinced by Ferriss’s second message – don’t micromanage, and free yourself of the details. You can have a lot more time in the day if you do that. As SlideShare grows, this is something I need to do better. Its simply impossible for me to be involved in every detail and I need to hand over more responsibilities.

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Four things…

Blame Joe Lamantia. Not quite sure why I am doing this or why anyone will want to read it, but heck this is the web – I can say what I want!

Four Jobs I’ve Had
1. Teaching Assistant
2. Researcher
3. Teacher
4. Entrepreneur
(never worked for the man!)

Four Movies I Can Watch Over And Over
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Pyasa
3. Beautiful Girls
4. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

Four Books I recently enjoyed
1. Life of Pi

2. The Wisdom of Crowds
3. Interpreter of Maladies
4. The man who mistook his wife for a hat

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Of running and sprained ankles

I have been getting more and more into running recently. Mostly I go along Stevens Creek, slowly increasing the number of miles I run. Yesterday was my first real running injury – the left ankle is pretty badly sprained. So, I am immobile for the time being, which has its brighter side – I cannot make it to the office or to any meetings! Its going to be a weekend of books and web surfing – I am finally getting around to reading Wisdom of Crowds, and just started with Martin Amis’s Money.