March 10, 2018

Book: Uncertainty by David Lindley

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:46 pm

imageThe full title, to give it its due is : ‘ Uncertainty : Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and The Struggle for the Soul of Science‘.

Lovely at the start, really. A book about the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that opened the way for the weirdness of Quantum Theory.

Did you know that Heisenberg was only twenty years old when he wrote a thesis on that principle? Who was his teacher? Niels Bohr himself!

Very well told tale, again at the beginning. It is fascinating to learn how Einstein was disdainful at first and then became a reluctant convert, even then arguing that it is only a partial solution and a more elegant answer is waiting to be found. He was unwilling to commit himself to it fully.

The narration is brilliant and captures the passion for the subject matter the author feels. The argument that Brown (of the Brownian Motion fame) initially found perplexing movements in items like the pollen and even the leaves, ‘thereby kind of starting observations that culminated in quantum mechanics many years hence’ is fascinating and, to me at least, novel.

A lovely argument about how Einstein came up with the mathematical model for Brownian motion and how it moved science from a precise, measurable branch of knowledge into the realm of equations and verifications of impacts – much to the chagrin of positivists, who kept insisting that atoms are not real as they cannot be seen or measured directly.

The story now branches into the equally interesting history of the discovery of X-Rays (Rontgen) and radioactivity (with the addition of both Plutonium and Radium to the newly created periodic table) where most of the work was done by the Curie couple. How radioactivity overturned the principle of cause and effect hitherto considered sacrosanct in science (“The rock just sits there and emits energy out of nothing?”) is well told.

So is the discovery of electrons that led to the amazing realization that atom is not the smallest particle known.  The rays coming out of the vacuum tubes were “tiny electrically charged particles smaller than anything known before – and therefore named electrons. What is equally fun to read is the personal profiles of the personalities involved.

Especially Niels Bohr. With his bushy eyebrows and a thick jaw and a mouth drooping downwards, the big gangly man, when deep in thought, stood slack and looked, in the words of a fellow scientist “like an idiot”.

The idea of a nucleus of an atom is deduced by shooting electrons *the newly discovered particles with mass” through a gold foil. Most electrons sail right through as if the foil is not even there but inexplicably, a very few electrons bounce back. What is stopping them? Exhilarating definitions of how the atom’s structure was put together piece by piece.

When Bohr stumbles on the math involved, the German scientist Sommerfield takes over and the nucleus of research in this field shifts to Germany (prior to WW II).

There is also the interesting description of Planck supporting the German side during WW I and even supporting the Nazis so far as to deny any cruelty was being perpetrated by German army. At the end of the War he is left looking stupid and rapidly backpedalling.

Einstein’s iconoclastic views all through his life is also well described. The adamant and nonsensical obstinacy of Bohr to accept that light could be a particle, even in the face of mounting evidence is surprising to read.

The book  has a lot of detailed descriptions about the debate between classical and quantum theory camps. The only interesting thing towards the end is how adamantly Einstein was opposed to the uncertainty principle, even after repeatedly being proved wrong.

And the fact that the famous Schrodinger’s cat example was devised to prove how ridiculous quantum theory is – that is, to disprove it. You will like  the explanation of the author as to why that example is wrong.

Nice book but towards the end gets very verbose and draggy. An interesting read but not an exciting one. Could have been elevated to the level of truly great science books with a little adept cutting and pruning.


–  –  Krishna


February 17, 2018

Book: A Lucky Child by Thomas Bluergenthal

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:09 pm

imageThis is a very different book.


It describes the experience of a small boy who survived a holocaust concentration camp. He was born in Czechoslovakia, in what is currently Slovakia.


He talks about his father’s birth in Poland and successive moves to Germany and then Czechoslovakia. It is well told, with his mother saving them from being collected in Czech territory when the father is away and they being shuttled between Czech and Poland borders many times. They manage to get into Poland but still are not out of danger.


They are heart-achingly close to escape with UK almost granting them a visa and they go to Poland, and then try Russia, give up, and try to cross Poland with no success. His childhood torments in the hands of other, orthodox jews and his belief in the supernatural elements of the religion come out well, providing a different strand from the grimness of the main tale. Initially.


It had a vague Anne Frank kind of vibe, not just because both are experiences of the Holocaust but also because there are the daily living trivia amidst menacing background and how a boy (as against a girl in the other one) copes with the odds and where they find the strength needed to move on and endure. But as you read on, you realize this is a very different narration. The author, since he reminisces many years as an adult, is aware of what is going on in grim detail while Anne Frank wrote her diary as an ordinary girl in hiding, without (apparently) a full realization of her precarious situation.


This one tells the story straight from memory and feels like the life of a real boy in a concentration camp. The details are fascinating. For instance, how he slipped away every time after the roll call and before the ‘selection’ of prisoners to the gas chamber, how he got separated from his mother immediately and his father after a few months, how his father protected him by getting him gainful employment from friends who were barrack bosses. Also how friends in his city turned squealers when he and his family tried to slip away one day to freedom. All amazingly and simply told. It has a feel of sitting in front of him and listening to him reminisce about the old days. Nice.


The brief glimpse of his mother and the forced march where if you could walk no more, you were shot, are all told simply but with devastating effect.


His memories at the orphanage and comparative “luxury” are well told, as are his minor mischieves in getting a discounted ticket and blowing the money given on candy etc.


He gets a note from his mother through the orphanage and is thrilled. After he is reunited with his mom, the story reads like an ordinary boy’s but there are flashes of his extraordinary life and how he became famous in Norway due to the write-up of Nansen, a Norwegian Red Cross person who had helped him in the camp and wrote about him when he returned to Norway.


The book could have ended earlier, when he was reunited with his mother after his travails but it would have been even shorter, so I guess the story needed to be elongated beyond the subject matter that is core subject matter intended. .This takes away from the book only because it tackled such a serious subject with verve only to meander a little bit at the end.


7/ 10


— Krishna

Book: The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:59 pm

imageStarted nicely, comparing Chris Columbus aims to find India by sea and what the modern equivalent of business travel to India is like.


The book is good in many respects but there are a ton of annoying parts, over generalizations and blithe preachy tone that puts off a reader. This is unfortunate because there is a lot in the book that is both good to know and is fascinating to read.


Then he goes into a eulogistic rhapsody about “these dynamic young Indians” and quoting Indian tech executives verbatim. When the plot meanders into mundane territory about how the call centre employees are unfailingly patient, and have the western names and accents to ‘give comfort to the clients’ it gets fairly boring. Especially now that the call centres are moving to Philippines from India with greater success. No, I am not knocking India, but only the eulogistic portrayal of what India has achieved, with what seems to be little balanced analysis.


There is a long list of how Indian young things handle calls and even more condescending blather about how the call centre jobs, which are the lowest paid in the West are sought after and fought after in India.


It gets even more annoying with generalizations. The city of Dajian has plans to outdo India as a software outsourcing centre. Even though the Chinese “are not as good in English as the Indians”, they plan to “select the best Chinese” to outcompete “because there are more Chinese than Indians by population”. Can you believe the string of generalizatons in this?


The story sometimes wanders into areas where you struggle to see how this is world going flat. They talk about a person conducting interviews with a MP3 player that doubles as a recorder and his phone camera and publishing it in a blog. Well, so what is the lesson there? The concept of freelancing is not new, despite the gadgets on display, is it?


Except for the annoying trivia, the message is interesting. The connection between the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the Iron Curtain) and the globalization of the world is very persuasively argued.


There is a whole lot of explanation about what is a web server, and how a browser works that are simply redundant for those techies (like me) who read the book. It may not even interest a lay reader.


He talks about colloboration through Wikis, the Open Source movement, and, though it is old hat for people in IT who watched it all happen, maybe new for lay persons interested, but at times he seems to get a bit more technical than what they can take. But apart from a few slips, this is an admirable attempt to de-jargonize the concepts for everyone.


A mixture of trivia and complicated descriptions is the one fault I can find. But generally the narration is just right and everyone, whether versed in technology or not,  gets the sense of the major upheavals that produced a ‘flat world’ as the author calls it.


He talks of the rise of India and the fortuitous coincidences that helped it along the way.

Some of it is a stretch like “in-forming” etc, but in general, he makes good points. The piece about how UPS manages even their customer’s businesses for them is interesting (repairing laptops for HP and managing logistics for Ford etc.)


But there are lots of repetitions and the same idea is presented multiple ways and sometimes the same idea the same way. It is as if you skipped back and reading an earlier chapter again, which was very frustrating. The argument about cheap and profitable aka WalMart but expensive (and more humane) and less profitable like Costco is repeated at least in the same detail in two different places that you feel like saying to the author ‘Oh, so sad. Do you have a short term memory loss? You just told me this a few pages ago!’.


The argument he makes for why free trade and globalization are good forces for all countries, even the ones who are outsourcing, is an old one, but he makes it with compelling arguments. (And to be fair, the book is old too. It talks of Palm Pilots and smartphones in the same breath).


That the argument is old and familiar does not take away the interest in reading it, because it is a very persuasive argument about the globalization and how US is not living up to it. I do not agree that progress in India and China counts as innovation yet, and his lament that these emerging nations are stealing tomorrow’s leadership from US In innovation, but his argument about how US is not focusing on the right things to protect its leadership and prosperity seems spot on.


The slight snobbery bothers me as a reader. He talks of US having to go to “broken down piece of the Soviet Union, Russia, where the only thing that works is science and engineering education” – wait for this – “though we won the Cold War”.  Wait, what did he just say?


Many of the arguments are valid and well made but it is interesting that a liberal leaning, conservative-ideology-hating author comes out with solutions for the current flat world (aka globalized world where the competition is across national boundaries) and comes out with prescriptions that are sure to infuriate the unions – portable skills, easy layoff and hiring etc.


And sweeping generalization is another problem. Leave aside blanket statements like “North Korea is 200 km away” (yeah? the entire country?)  he also says blithe things like “A handful of leaders in countries like China, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and India…. relied on the leverage of authoritarian political systems to push through reforms”. Really? India? Authoritarian?  A high school geography text book could have told him otherwise. A pity, since the fundamental points he makes are sound, even if already well known.


Don’t get me wrong, not everything he says, even about India is wrong. He is on the dot about the awful infrastructure and abominable power situation that is holding the country back.


Again, coming to India, he lauds Indian Congress party for choosing Manmohan Singh, the reformer, as Prime Minister “because they realized that Indians were craving the benefits of prosperity to be distributed evenly to rural areas as well”. This is as widely off the mark as can be. The internal politics of how Sonia Gandhi could not herself become Prime Minister due to her origin of birth (and crazy objections from others resulting from that very fact) and his subsequent powerlessness to impose any reform and his ignominious exit due to scandals that he could not control and even came close to tainting him are all events that follow the publication of this book but nevertheless prove how wrong this argument is.


And I for one do not fully buy the argument that rural, illiterate Indians voted out the ruling party in 2004 despite its liberalization success “because they wanted to be involved in the prosperity engendered by globalization”. Yes, there was some of that. But the argument ignores the entire complex machinations by people misled by politicians and also voting on the basis of anger against fat cat capitalists, and all pervasive corruption or voting on narrow caste interests.


What is also hard to accept is his argument that the Arabs are resorting to suicide bombing violence primarily due to frustrations against their authoritarian governments.


But his arguments on the anti globalization movement, its motivation and origins and its effect of undermining the prosperity of the very poor that they seem to champion are all exactly right and also narrated brilliantly.


The book ends thought provokingly and in my view the last few chapters are the most interesting.



— Krishna


February 10, 2018

Book: This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:17 pm

imageThis is one of the books that are off the beaten track and make you both think and (due to parts of it) be bored.


This is a collection of thought provoking articles culled from the Edge  which is a British magazine that seems like the printed version of scientific op-ed pieces.


It is also a Creationist’s or even a deeply religious person’s nightmare.  The first essay is about time that still remains in the universe as opposed to the limited time (“limited” is relative, as in 13.6 billion years) the universe has been in place.These are very short essays, and some are thought provoking as in “Everything you hold dear is a cosmic accident. There is no specific purpose in your existence; earth is not the centre of the Universe; the sun is a smallish, insignificant star in the scheme of things” etc. Well, most of it you knew already before picking up this book, but this gives another perspective to look at these.


Another article is about the microbes ruling the world. Makes you think. There are articles about instilling scientific thinking as a general principle of the public awareness and how it would change the world for the better. For instance, there is a piece about controlled experimentation in everyday life, not just in scientific labs.


The article about innate bias in everything including the supposedly neutral agencies like the media (really? The author thought they are supposed to be neutral?) is very interesting.


An article talks of why the term “scientifically proven” is an oxymoron. Fascinating to read why and then you finally tend to agree with the argument! A similar argument about how uncertainty is the real fact of life is interesting.


Again, you are struck by the rationalist tone. If there was a group against a decisive and omnipotent God and not just Creationism, this is it.


The piece about how people underestimate risk and overestimate their ability is nice.


It is not possible to review the pieces individually but most are thought provoking and almost all of them make you think – justifying the title. If you are of the anti Darwin persuasion, these will probably also uniformly make you seethe with anger.


There are interesting essays about the powers of ten, and others, such as the one about memes or about cumulative error, are boring.


Some are plain silly, a couple are difficult to understand, but they all make you pause and think ‘Hm, I never thought of it in this way’ most of the time.


There is one in particular about SHA (Short hand Abstraction) that borders on the bizarre.


A mixed bag, worth, on an average, 4/10

– – Krishna


January 6, 2018

Book: Right From the Start by Dan Ciampa & Michael Watkins

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 6:33 pm

Note: This book is reviewed from the point of usefulness of the subject matter. It is a non fictional managerial aid book, and is reviewed as such.

Taking over as second in command under a departing CEO


 from an external company is hard. You battle with three issues : promises you made to the board to get the job, unfamiliarity of the new turf and antagonism from senior executives who hope you fail so they in turn can become CEO

The case studies to illustrate the points are excellent. For instance, Andy, who is brought in as Number Two to uplift a floundering company, goes gung ho and rough shod over everyone and gets fired for his pains on what looks like the third week. Others describe being hijacked by vested interests and people who try to push their own, sometimes tired, agenda onto the new boss.

They outline multiple principles – the need to focus on specific goals, show early wins and build momentum while not losing focus on where we go, the need to learn and adjust the plan based on the company’s capabilities and unique circumstances, to effect change at the top to build a team both by inspiring and replacing executives. None of these is surprising but it is well told.

Example of Matt who did not keep his subordinates behind him while he curried favours with the superiors, example of how people successfully listened and modified their initial vision to account for the company’s limitations are all very useful and nicely narrated.

The examples in all the steps (Personal Vision, Early successes, and how to influence the department, how to build a support network) are very useful and give this book a less pedantic and more practical feel.

The principles to follow – making change only to the extent that the organization can take, listening in, making people changes positively but quickly, being accessible but not too accessible – are interesting to read.

The authors talk about creating a personal vision, and how to formulate the vision – all to the point and very interesting. The formation of the vision, whether to share it widely and whether to share it with the CEO (whose work you are essentially dismantling in a way) are well told. Again, examples bring home the point more forcefully than a dozen pages of dry discourse and also keeps this interesting to read.

There are chapters devoted to self management, and an especially interesting one about seeking counsel. They talk about the various types of counsels you need and how to get them. They also talk about how someone else’s ideal counsellors will not be the right one for you.

Nice book and gives you insight about an unusual subject well. Not gripping, not told in a racy style (which it is possible to do even in this topic) but good arguments made in a serious tone. If you are not interested in this topic, though, you may find the material boring and may want to skip it.

7/ 10

– – Krishna


November 5, 2017

Book: Are you Smart Enough To Work At Google? by William Poundstone

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:50 pm

imageWhat a title! Full marks for the title that wants you to read the book at once. Unfortunately, the book itself does not live up to that hype. It would have been far better if it was the other way around – a great book with an insipid title.


Started with a weird interview of a candidate with Google. Then he goes into types of interview questions that are cliche and some which are oddball.


If you love puzzles, you would love this book. For instance, one of the questions is “What is the next number in the series 10 9 60 90 70 66?”. Try as I might, I could not guess the answer. Perhaps you can but the answer is very surprising!


Another question is : If you were shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in a blender and the blender is about to start in 10 minutes, how will you escape? The “right” answer and the science behind it are interesting indeed. As is the discussion on what to take seriously in the question (as a given, without questioning it) and what to infer!


The analysis of why the scene of the Incredible Shrinking Man fighting with a spider using a needle has been picturized wrong is nice indeed. (It is related to the above is the only clue I am willing to give, so as not to spoil the book for you).


He talks about how interviews are useless predictors of future performance. The idea that not all intelligent people are successful or creative etc. Questions on creativity “Give me all the uses you can put a brick into” are interesting.


He talks about a world where paucity of jobs makes the employers choosy due to applications overflowing for each job and even Walmart asks tricky questions to test your thinking prowess.


But the book is not about questions that make you think. I thought it would be a puzzle book, cleverly titled to draw in readership but it is actually more an analysis of the hiring practices in most companies, especially Google. Does not consistently retain your interest.


Some puzzles are brilliant. The 100 prisoners who wear red or blue hat and stand in a line so that everyone can see the hats in front of them but not theirs or the ones behind them. They are asked to name the colour of their own hat and will be shot dead if they get it wrong. There is a strategy that is foolproof that can help everyone (except the last one). The explanation is simply brilliant! Pieces like this save the book from being another uninteresting discussion on google’s hiring practice.


The puzzle about two men talking about a man’s three daughters (product of the ages is 72 and sum of their ages is “equal to the number on that house opposite” without giving you the number. The other says, “I still don’t understand” and the first one clarifies fully by saying “my eldest daughter plays the piano” and it is all clear to the second one!) is excellent as is the reasoning behind the answer.


Those are the best parts. There is an overwhelmingly tedious description on how everyone wants to work for the best tech companies and how you can prepare for the job.


But most of the book is about the quirky nature of questions in today’s interviews in the tech world and how you address them. Most of them are not logical but very esoteric and the answers are, frankly, not enough to hold your interest if you are not pining for an interview in one of these tech giants or if you are not interested in unrealistic problem solving. The book does not hold your interest for long, if you are a layman.


I will give it, at best, a 4 / 10


October 26, 2017

Book: A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:13 am

imageI hate overly preachy or overly fawning accounts in the name of non fiction. I mean books like Beyond the Last Blue Mountain or, perhaps surprisingly for you, The Life of Pi.  From the book’s title and the subject matter, I feared that this is perhaps one in the latter category. Thankfully, this is not the case.


The full title of this book is :  A Problem From Hell : America and the Age of Genocide. Sounds like a literature Ph D thesis and I would have not touched the book with a ten foot pole if it had not come with high recommendations. As it is, I am glad I did. It is a well written and gripping book and the author’s passion for the oppressed comes out as is her frustration and anger at successive US bungling of each crisis.


The book covers a broad canvas. Covers all mass killings, effortlessly moving from the Armenian genocide by Turkey to Pol Pot massacres to Nazi Germany and Iraq’s attempts at the eradication of their Kurd population.


An Armenian kills Kamal Pasha, who is living in retirement in Germany for all the atrocities the latter committed against Armenians when he was a Turkish general in the Ottoman army.

Tehrlian, the assassin, in his young days saw his whole family raped, tortured and killed by the Turkish soldiers who were accompanying them in a forced march “in order to protect them”. He himself was left for dead after a hit on his head knocked him unconscious.


The massacre is not condemned by Germany, which is an ally of Turkey against the Allies in World War I but the Allies themselves are too busy to win the war to make a big protest.


The valiant efforts of Morgenthau, the US ambassador to get US to intervene is of no avail. He asks for a transfer in disgust and is never appointed again as an ambassador by an irate President Wilson.


Samantha writes passionately and very well, keeping what is a rather difficult subject well.


Another advocate for stopping extermination of a whole ethnicity (the term ‘genocide’ was not used then) was a Polish lawyer called Lemkin. He tried to propose, in UN, that this should be made illegal, and even specifically talked about dangers such as the (future) rise of a ruler like Hitler in Germany. The motion was defeated and the UN panel said that there was no conceivable way anything like the Armenian massacre “can happen again”. Remember that Lemkin was a Polish Jew and that the year was 1939 and the irony is supreme!


Lemkin tries to persuade the Jews to leave as soon as Germany invades Poland but no one, not even his family, wants to leave the place where they have ‘everything’. Tragic. He immigrates to the US and his efforts to bring the plight of Jews under Hitler also fall on deaf ears. He coins the word genocide to denote attempts to exterminate a whole people.


Zygielbojm was so frustrated with the lack of attention to the Jewish plight and the indecision of the Allied powers that he killed himself to bring their plight to the world’s attention.


Lemkin makes himself a pest making people run the other way when they see him but succeeds in getting genocide outlawed by a UN charter. US turns against the vague wording of the act and refuses to ratify it. Lemkin goes nearly nuts and complains against Human Rights Act of UN! He dies a weird man to the last.


Proxmire takes up the cudgels for genocide law afterwards.


The author complains that during Khmer Rouge atrocities US did not step in and do something. I agree that a nation’s rulers should not be allowed to murder their own population or part thereof with impunity but think about it. US was just walloped in Vietnam and evacuated Combodia and were war weary. To go back in again against Khmer Rouge would not have been easy as they needed Congress approval to do that and the whole country was up against foreign adventurism due to the Vietnam war effect. Rather like the post Iraq fatigue of US in Syria, for example. The debate then (as it is now in the Middle East) is whether the suffering of a citizenry justifies a foreign power to intervene against the government’s will.


Excellent coverage is provided of the reasons of the Pol Pot takeover of Cambodia, including the corrupt administration of Prince Sihanouk, the womanizing gourmet who called himself god king or ‘deva raj’ (Interesting use of Sanskrit there, of all things).


Nixon administrations to install the totally ineffective regime of Lon Nol as the prime minister, in a coup and the author describes how it exacerbated the problem and how his army was not even furnished and how US gave 80% of the revenues in aid which went straight to the pockets of the ruling politicians. Fascinating. It is ironic how Sihanouk became the front for the Pol Pot regime when they won the civil war. The subsequent brutality was covered much more graphically in the other book we reviewed earlier – Pol Pot: A History of Nightmare by Philip Short which gave the inside view. But this one is a good outsider’s summary.


The Cambodian story from the perspective of US and world inaction in the face of mass atrocities by Pol Pot regime is also beautifully told. The struggles of lone Senators to get the Carter administration or the UN to do something substantial without much to show for it is also heart rending.


Due to cold war considerations, it is appalling to see US side with the ousted Khmer Rouge government even after the genocide is well known and not only get them a seat in the UN but also supply arms for it to recapture Cambodia from Vietnam? All because Vietnam was aligned with Russia and US was trying to curry favour with China, a Khmer supporter? It is terrible to read!


What a powerful indictment on the US policy! First, unreasonable reluctance to even acknowledge Hitler’s mass executions, then support for Cambodian regime (even aid and arms after they were ousted) to unseat Vietnam which had finally “liberated” the place, then overt support and blind denials of Saddam’s employment of chemical weapons against his own population of Kurds. When you read the stubborn refusal of US government to recognize overwhelming evidence from its own senators and journalists for the sake of geopolitics, you are truly horrified.


Samantha then turns her razor sharp analysis to the Bosnian problem. Clinton the Presidential Candidate is full of passion and outrage for the Bosnians but Clinton the President turns out to be a totally different one, not taking any action at all while Bosnians are massacred with seeming impunity by the Miloslavic regime. Ironic that an author vilified as a war monger ended up in the advisory council of one of the tamest Presidents of them all, Obama.


Rwandan massacres come in next and her explanation of the riot in personal terms of what individual groups did makes, again, for a powerful description of the madness that prevailed. The chilling “instructions” given to Hutus is terribly stark.


Samantha covers the Bosnian and Kosovo crises too, in a similar vein.


The last portion of the book is a rehash mostly. There are some moving vignettes. This focuses on the remedial measures taken and compares the Human Rights commissions set up in various countries (Cambodia, Rwanda with the International Court of Justice). You can safely skip most of this without any loss of information.


In all, a great book, better than I anticipated.  7/10


–  –  Krishna


October 23, 2017

Book: Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:04 am

imageScience books are getting better all the time. There are many authors who write exhilaratingly well about science, and Simon Singh is also one of them. Some of the others we have reviewed already are A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Ancestor’s Tale.


This is a well written book. It is a book about how Fermat’s Thoerem/ Puzzle, a mathematical enigma so great that it defied the world’s  best mathematicians’ efforts to provide a proof for three centuries after it was stated was finally solved by an unassuming, shy, scientist Andrew Wiles.


But first, by way of a great introduction,  Simon Singh takes us to the ancient Greek times and starts our journey with Pythagoras, who is famous for the Pythagoras Theorem. And his style is fluid and fascinating,  which tells you why his science books are so famous in the literary world. He shows how, even though ancient Egyptians knew how to calculate hypotenuse of a triangle using the same rule as Pythagoras, how the latter proved that it is true of all triangles, thus launching the concept of a rigorous mathematical proof that changed the scientific world forever. In addition, he mixes in some personal anecdotes of the man to keep our interest high. Nicely done.


The surprising section about the perfect numbers and how squares also have one surprising fact about their factors is all fascinating.


And surprising tidbits about the life of major players keeps coming and keep you fascinated. For instance, we learn that Pythagoras was killed in a riot engineered by an applicant rejected entry to his secretive school twenty years earlier and had nursed a grudge all that time.


He talks about the Dark Ages putting paid to all progress in the West for hundreds of years and the destruction of that great library in the seat of Alexandria, not once, not twice but three times and how some of the volumes survived all that – though a great majority were lamentably destroyed.


What is nice about this book is all the tangents Simon gets into. A straight narrative of Fermat’s rule and how it was proved may have been an interesting read but when he goes into Euclid’s contributions to the solution, he also goes into other things that Euclid did, his life, his loss of sight in one eye, and even the asides – the political scene and Catherine the Great inviting “the mathematical Cyclop” back – make this a brilliant story. (He loses sight in both eyes thereafter). The female mathematicians (Hypatia, who was killed as a witch in a mob lynching, xxx who married for convenience so that she can travel, why no one would marry female mathematicians and how they stayed single all their lives) are also well covered.


The extent to which lady mathematicians had to go in order to gain recognition is fascinating.


What is interesting is the presentation. The story is told well, and flows on, and the additional mathematical details, for those interested, is moved to the Appendix and simply referenced in the main text. Nice.


In addition you learn about the craze created by simple puzzles of Sam Lloyd, and the game theory and Truel problem with Mr Gray, Mr Black and Mr White in a truel. (Duel with three folks). Mr Gray is the worst shot, hitting opponent once in three times; Mr Black is better, hitting once in two shots and Mr White is a perfect shot, hitting every time. Being the weakest, Mr Gray gets the first shot. Who should he aim at? The answer is very surprising.


The life of Galois, who is a genius in maths but a total rebel and a republican in monarchist France is touching. He gets repeatedly arrested, his contribution “lost” or rejected, and finally he dies foolishly in a duel prompted by the infidelity of a woman betrothed to be married to the best shot in town who had an affair with him and the husband challenges him to a duel and kills him.


Andrew Wiles’s first effort at revealing the proof which caused worldwide headlines are well narrated. When his colleagues find a flaw, he tries for months to fix it and his refusal to publish the work so far earns him scorn and enmity of the people. Finally, he gets the full proof ready, his reputation reinstated.


Nice work, pleasant reading on a subject that some would consider dry and pedantic. Well done. Of course, Simon now is a famous science author and has published many more books.



–  – Krishna


August 14, 2016

Book: Contested Will by James Shapiro

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:58 pm

imageThe full title is “Contested Will: Who wrote  Shakespeare?”.Do you see the play on words in the title? Cute.

The prolog is really nice. The controversy about who really wrote Shakespeare started even in the eighteenth century. James Wilmot argued that everything that the plays indicate about the education, the travels (description of foreign towns) etc do not match what we know about the real William Shakespeare from history. So who really wrote it? There are dozens of suggestions but James Shapiro takes two cases and examines the case. One is Edward de Vere, who is the Earl of Oxford and the other is Francis Bacon. Both these perspectives agree that William Shakespeare did not write those plays and someone else used his name.


And then there is the title event. Shakespeare had written in his will “To my loyal wife, I bequeath my second best bed”, without any explanation! The mystery deepens.


With this plot, you would expect a killer narrative, right? The style though is pedantic. The exciting story of how, Ireland, the son of a Shakespearean scholar, found unexpected success in unearthing some important documents on the life of the bard itself and let the fame go to his head and forged several more “finds” and got exposed; how Shakespeare devotion swept the stage around that time reminding one of the Beatlemania much later have all been told in a professorial tone, marring the impact it may have had on you as a reader.


Even after proof that the papers were forgeries by Malone, who pointed out that some of the things in the documents (for instance, tea) were not available in England in Shakespeare’s lifetime, people insisting on believing that the documents were authentic.


The way Malone then took to speculation on what Shakespeare’s life must have been from his plays is criticized. Rightly so. But when the same point is made for about 15 pages, you start getting bored and urge James Shapiro to “move on” in your mind.


And it goes on and on where Malone even hid some diaries that presented contrary evidence because he was blindly convinced of the rightness of his views. But very slow, with agonizing repetitions of the same point.


And when the pious Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, offended by the research from Friedrich Strauss that argued that The New Testament could not have been real based on some scientific analysis, wrote a parody saying all the plays could not have been written by Shakespeare, this argument became the basis of serious argument about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays by subsequent critics!


Delia Bacon argued that Francis Bacon was the real author but that was driven by no concrete evidence, and with the belief that she was somehow related to that man – without any evidence to the relationship. Till she turned insane and was admitted to an asylum and died, she persisted on irritating everyone by her alternate bouts of nagging and paranoia that someone else will steal her ideas. In spite of powerful sympathizers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, she frittered away her chance to do genuine research. Her personal scandal and ridicule in personal life only made the paranoia worse.


The main things that fuelled suspicion about Shakespeare’s authorship is the fact that he was a man who was not literate enough, in people’s opinion, to have written so fine a set of plays and more importantly, there was no manuscript found in Shakespeare’s effects after his death for any of the plays! Strange.


Mark Twain was of the same opinion and in fact influenced by Delia. Now it is interesting that all through his life, Mark Twain kept getting into disastrous business ventures, losing all his money and then winning it back through new books and lectures! Another feature is that Mark Twain was the first one to think of branding himself. Today’s branding industry has him to thank. He gets convinced on some kooky ciphers that people arbitrarily see in Shakespeare’s plays (“Bacon signed his name in them in cipher”) and gets misled.


More and more on the same points. Reads like a research paper written for a doctorate thesis and is tedious to read in many places. For instance Freud was also convinced that Shakespeare did not write the plays and even used Hamlet as an inspiration to move to his now famous theories. The way it is told could not be more soporific even if you tried.


There was a group called the Church of Humanity that worshipped Shakespeare (and also others like Homer and Dante) as religious leaders and even named months after them. The month of Shakespeare was in the fall, and was between the months of Gutenberg and Descartes. Wow.


Shakespeare’s case, if you understand the realities of those times, seems unshakable when presented by the author. It is only deep seated religion-like convictions that drive the alternate theories even when, as in the case of Earl of Oxford, subsequent historical findings repudiate much of the basis for the original claim.


For instance you should have actors available to deliver the dialogs, especially those in Welsh as sometimes written. Also the female parts were played by boys who had to be frequently replaced when they reached puberty and their voices broke so the current crop of actors should be able to mouth the formidable dialogs. So a person cannot write a play in isolation and get it staged.


The book picks up when it describes Shakespearean times when plays were staged and the constraints (in music, stage space etc) he faced and how the plays were written to suit those conditions – including the taste of the audience at that time. It is interesting to read that he had purely commercial motives in writing these great plays. This is similar to the shock in finding out that Alexander Dumas had written the Three Musketeers as a serial piece in the local newspaper!


And then comes a long series of hand wringing about the tendency that still prevails to read Shakespeare’s plays as autobiographical. We have seen all the arguments earlier (not that it is not valid) and so it feels like you have flipped the book backwards and are reading the sections again in a different set of words.


Why should we care who wrote Shakespeare? He has a good reason for it. Read the book, however boring most of it is, to find out why.



– – Krishna






June 26, 2016

Book : A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:07 am

imageDon’t get put off by the boring title of this book. The title suggests that this is a boring, college text kind of book on philosophy. But you would never guess how many things you learn by reading it! At times it does read like a college text book, the dry, pedagogic kind, and at others, this is quite fascinating.
Take the beginning of the book, which starts with a discussion on philosophy. This is not what you would expect in a ‘philosophy’ book as generally understood. When talking about individual liberty vs duties to the state, he says that ‘In [ancient] Sparta, [the citizen] had as little liberty as in modern Germany or Russia’. The book was written in 1946 just when the Second World War had come to an end so makes sense, but in today, it sits odd, especially with the word modern thrown in front of Germany. The intro is excellent, showing the power and conflicts among church and king in various countries and how the mix varied with time, especially with the dark ages of the barbarian conquest of Europe turning the clock back on civilization for many years; the later monopoly of the church on all education; the fact that even in medieval times, absolute monarchs did not have all the power you think they have. And their rebellion against religion is the plunder and rape and then go for absolution with the clerics!



Wow, in about 50 pages of this book, you learn stuff that you would not get in several books elsewhere. You learn how tribal gods, human sacrifices and cannibalism were prevalent in all societies, only with timing differences! He says that mathematics as we know it (with rules and proof) originated in Greece. So much for Indian claims to astronomy and maths! Also he says that when religion regressed in Greece (For instance, Homer’s Gods are not worthy of reverence. They are petty jealous etc) he claims all societies went through it and unlike India (authors words, but the italics are mine), Greece was saved from an unlucky fate by the flowering of science at the same time. Wow!


Thales said (again from Greece) that everything was made out of water but Anaximander, a . contemporary,  said that everything in the worlds is made of another substance not yet known. (There are things that can be inferred to refer to not only atoms, or even protons and electrons! Amazing!) Remember this is 6th century BC. However they also believed that fire, water, earth etc were basic elements like we think of atoms today.


A lot more interesting trivia follows. For instance, we learn that Dionysis, the God of Greeks was the model for Apollo and other later Gods.


Pythagoras was the father of inductive reasoning (he of the famous theorem of right angled triangles) but also was into a lot of superstitious mumbo jumbo and formed a religious sect with rules like ‘Do not pick up anything that has fallen’; ‘Do not look into a mirror near a light’ and other illogical stuff like that. And humility was something he was not guilty of. He said ‘There are some men like Gods, they are like Pythagoras’.


Another fun thing pointed out by Bertrand is that all sciences had a non scientific side to it, which could have been even the prime reason the sciences developed – astronomy with astrology, chemistry with alchemy, etc. Fascinating.


Ancient philosophers were not blind followers of faith either. Listen to Xenophanes, who came after Pythagoras (and made fun of his idea of transmigration of souls, incidentally): “If lions had hands and could paint, they will paint their Gods as lion-like” (I paraphrase to get the meaning across, but it makes perfect sense. Like why humans discovered the decimal system? Because they have ten fingers. If Octopi had discovered maths, they will be using the octal numbers!).

In a way, Parmanides has interesting thoughts on philosophy. He claims that there are no opposites in the world at all.  Darkness is just the absence of light. Coldness is just the absence of heat. As an outlook, it is interesting, though you may be able to poke a million holes into the theory if you went down to the detail. Maybe.


Athens was destroyed by Persians and after defeating Persia (both Darius and his son Xerxes), Pericles who was elected for 30 years repeatedly, built all the modern ruins we see now (Coliseum etc) . Greece until its victory over Persia was a cultural laggard!  (Can you believe it?)


The Spartan way of life, the reality and the myth, is interesting. It is odd that Sparta is held to such high ideals and yet, life was horrible. Men were allowed to marry but they lived in the company of other men and meet wife only as if a secret illicit lover. Then if a man did not have children, another man can lie with the wife (with permission of husband) to beget children.


No property was allowed, gold and silver disallowed, coin was to be made in iron.

Plato was influenced very much by the Sparta (the ideal, not the real) and in turn influenced Western thought for centuries to come.


It is fun to see parallels of Plato’s Utopia (the Guardians) with the Soviet communist party! But easy to see why. Plato did not want the wife, child relationship of families, he wanted no corruption of young minds by reading poems of Homer (‘where Gods behave badly’). He wanted man woman relationship to be temporary and decided by state, he wanted the state to have pure monopoly on lying (one thing that governments all over the world seem to have adopted!) and to top it all, no one should own property or accumulate wealth. Seems more Pol Pot ideology, surprisingly. If this is Utopia, we definitely do not want any part of it, do we?


Also, those philosophers had weird ideas – what we see is only perception not the truth so whatever we see is false!


Aristotle’s ideas can also be strange. He has cynical advice to tyrants on how to keep themselves in power. He says war is justified to acquire ‘natural slaves’ from other countries but war by others against Greece is not justified because Greeks are not ‘natural slaves’. Go figure.

Aristotle was the father of Logic as the study is known today.


It is fun to see Aristotle define aristocracy as the best system and that his definition of democracy is not ours. (Only the educated, free, males participate).


Euclid came up with the geometry. Even though an ancient Greek philosopher correctly postulated a heliocentric “universe” where every planet revolves around the sun, the Romans and the Christians killed the idea as this is not according to the accepted mythology of the times. The syllogism centric logic (All Greeks are men, all men are mortal and therefore all Greeks are mortal” ) they carried it to the extreme.


Some philosophers were personally very “colourful” as the author puts it. One was found drunk all the time but was a profound thinker. Once they found him naked in the garden sitting on a birdbath pretending to be a fountain statue.


Sceptics and Cynics come next. These two have different meaning from today’s. It is interesting to note that the word cynic evolves from dog with the same root word as for canine. They were given the name because a leader of them decided to live like a dog!

Bertrand also  covers Epicureans and  Stoics and their philosophy.  The section ends with Platonius, who formed a bridge for ideas to flow from Stoics to Christianity.


Interesting that the Jewish philosophy was almost dead and absorbed into Greek philosophy. If that had fully happened, then there would be no Judaism, Christianity or Islam today.


St Augustus, famous for ‘God, give me forbearance but not yet’, is discussed as well.


You learn that Charlemagne, praised by Popes for political reasons and called Holy Emperor was a barbarian with loose morals.

How and why did Catholic priests become celibate? Interesting Explanation in the book.


Also the Islamic prohibition of graven images was revived from an earlier Jewish decision. Islam said that People of the Book (Jews and Christians) should be treated as brothers! It was the Persians who brought true religion to Islam, as Arabs were not very religious and used this only for plunder and conquest. (Really?)  Umayyads, the Sunnis were overthrown by Abbasids who were more fanatical but one of them escaped to Spain and ruled there. Thus Spain, albeit Mohammaden, was divorced from the rest of the Islamic world.


Then the book gets a lot heavier to read and a bit dry. You still come across interesting tidbits. Here is an example : at the end of Italian Renaissance, the city states like Florence feuded and battled each other but bloodlessly not least because the army consisted of mercenaries on all sides and they did not want to cause losses to themselves! So when France attacked it they were totally unprepared and, in the words of the author, “French troops shocked the Italians by actually killing people in battle.”


Utopia, as explained, is another surprise, at least to me. It was described by Sir Thomas Moore who was killed by Henry VIII after he opposed the King’s divorce to marry Anne Bolyn. Utopia is a communist paradise with common property etc. All houses in the entire Utopia of fifty four towns are exactly alike except in the capital. Even in Utopia they needed to separate the rulers! All clothes are alike, men and women dress alike… Funny when you consider the modern meaning of Utopia.


In case of painful and incurable disease, the patient is advised to commit suicide but is carefully tended to, if he or she refuses to do so.


Interesting descriptions of Descartes and his belief in science. And how scientific progress was aided by the decline of the Papal power and the Protestant movement.


The rivalry between Rousseau and Voltaire is well brought out with Voltaire’s sarcastic reply to Rousseau’s essay on how man should eschew civilization altogether to be ‘pure’.


We learn that Darwin’s theory of Evolution did not originate from him at all but had been proposed by many before him, including his own grandfather Erasmus. The survival of the fittest theory was new from him to supplement the evolution from a common ancestry principle.


Can you believe that Nietzsche’s dad was a priest? And that he had a pious upbringing as a child? In 1888, when he was just 44 he went insane and remained so until his death twelve years later. He did all his work before 1888.


Interesting to see that Nietzche is a misogynist. A typical quote is “Are you going to a woman? Don’t forget your whip”. Overall though, the extreme development of the Nietzche philosophy resulted in Nazism and Facism, as described by Bertrand in this book.


But here is the kicker. Marx who is considered the father of Marxism if not all of communism, was married to an aristocratic lady and was totally devoted to her all his life. In addition, he hated Slavs and it is Russia, from the Slavic tradition who adopted his philosophy for their country, not his Germany or his adopted home, London. But how he developed the philosophy is explained in interesting detail in this book. He believes that work is the only value add in economy and it makes sense for those times where the aristocrats led a life of pure leisure living on their inheritance and money provided by the government. The ‘gentlemen don’t soil their hands by deigning to do any real work’ kind of thing. (For a romantic and humorous account of this person, the best known example is Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves series by P G Wodehouse). So given that the only value add is labour, the spoils of the industry or the profits are unjustly distributed. This is the fundamentals of communism.


Lots of deep philosophy and that could be a drag. There are also parts that are very difficult to understand.


But the interesting pieces are fascinating and a treasure trove of jaw dropping information, for which alone, this book gets a 7/10


  • – Krishna
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