bookspluslife

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.

 

4/10

– – Krishna

 

 

 

 

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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

January 3, 2016

Book: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P Bix

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:09 pm

imageThis is a Pulitzer prize winning book on Japan’s ruler during the Second World War. But the book starts so badly that you wonder ‘This won the Pulitzer?’ Eventually it does gets a lot better. Have patience.

 

This book describes the machinations of the emperor to take Japan on the warpath. And the whitewash that followed with American connivance after the war, albeit the emperor himself was made powerless as a constitutional and ceremonial monarch.

 

His grandfather was Musushito, called Meiji or “The Great”. Like the British Royals, he seems to have barely shown affection visibly to his grandchildren. In fact, they grew up in a courtier’s house. The crown prince was sickly all the time.

 

Hirohito was brought up to believe the supremacy of the throne and how everything in Japan owed to the monarchy. His upbringing reinforced it. It is interesting to see that he got the old Confucian world view and the modern warrior world view together as education. He gets a mixed message of the old Japanese hierarchy where the kings have to be obeyed blindly because they are descended from divinity (Sun) and, often in a conflicting way,  modern education as well.

 

One definite problem with the book is its very slow narration. You suppress a yawn constantly while ploughing through the material.

 

It is also interesting to know how, after the first World War and the collapse of monarchies everywhere in Europe, Japan also had an anti monarchic feeling and two contrasting impulses within that camp – towards democracy and towards Communism.

 

His foreign trip and the assassination of the Prime Minister by a worker are described. The material is interesting but the book is boring. A rambling and disinterested style of writing reminds one of the tone and speech of the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons. This story could have been made so much more interesting.

 

For instance, the endless discussion on his teachers and what they said is boring as hell. The Chinese possessions of Japan and how the powers tried to carve it up after World War I is the only interesting piece in this section of the book.

 

The very detailed administrative listing of where Hirohito went, what he studied, who said what to him, how they viewed the country around them is told in a very tedious way, with not an iota of excitement in many cases. Even the War of Independence of America is told in a fabulously great style in 1776 (reviewed earlier). Imagine what this story could have been, if the author had not decided to quote chronicles in what looks like a laundry list fashion!

 

The book picks up when they show how clueless Hirohito’s father was and how they tried to whitewash him straight out of history (Meiji and then Hirohito is the preferred version) and how Korea, a colony of Japan then, reacted to the ‘divine emperor’, as presented by the government propaganda, ascending to the throne. Also the descriptions of how uncharismatic Hirohito himself was, according to the author, are interesting. The Manchurian fiasco where the army starts to defy the parliament and the emperor himself and Hirohito’s weak response to it are both interesting, in that it sets the stage to understand Japan’s increasingly militaristic attitude before the World War II time.

 

In addition, this helps understand how Japan ended up against the Allies and in the Axis group.

 

What is interesting is how Japan occupied parts of China as late as the 1930s and even considered China not as a country but an agglomeration of territories and assumed the right to reorganize the territories as Japan wished, taking unto itself any parts it deemed fit.

 

The book gets better when the war looms. The expansionist military and the emperor produced a philosophy that predicates absolute obedience of all subjects to the emperor, sacrificing their “small ego”. The emperor is divine, all knowing and benevolent and would show “all nations their proper place”. You realize that the doctrine was frighteningly close to both the fascist philosophy of world domination under a powerful ruler towards a purist goal and traces of the Pol Pot philosophy of sacrificing every need of the people and, if required, the people themselves to the cause determined by the rulers as suitable for Japan, “the nation superior to all other nations on earth”.

 

Another place where  the book gets very interesting is in the descriptions of the Japanese army’s atrocities and the rape of Nanking, and how everyone in the government were aware of it but did nothing about it. Hirohito later denied being briefed about it at all but the author presents compelling, though circumstantial evidence about how this is highly improbable.

 

In addition, we see that, after making an anti-communist pact with Japan in 1936, Nazi Germany blithely turned around and made a nonaggression pact in 1939 with Russia, completely contravening the earlier pact with Japan! And we all know what happened to that pact with Russia only a few years later.

 

An interesting tidbit : General Abe, a forefather of the current Prime Minister of Japan, was a PM at the height of the Japan’s military muscle flexing!

 

Then come the atrocities which the author lists as sanctioned by Hirohito including large scale annihilation of Chinese civilians and use of chemical and even biological weapons. It was a shocking waste of lives on a massive scale.

 

And the plans to just take over the Dutch and British colonies in Asia once the Germans won over the British in Europe make a chilling read. The circumstances where Japan pushed war with the US and England, and also treacherously planning to backstab the Soviet Union with whom they too entered a non-aggression pact are all interesting. Hirohito takes the driver’s seat, orchestrates the now infamous Pearl Harbour attack and aligns his country firmly with the Axis powers.

 

His obstinate refusal to accept the fact of certain defeat and ordering all Japanese to fight and die rather than surrender are all vividly brought out. He ignored many occasions where he could have sought peace and even after the atom bombs destroyed two cities, was engrossed with rescuing the symbols of his power (mirror, a curved jewel and a sword) by bringing them into the palace near his person.

 

The whitewashing of the Emperor’s role after the defeat is interesting, as are the efforts to preserve the racial purity of Japanese from violent attacks by the “sex starved and frenzied” Allied soldiers by offering them all the prostitutes (volunteered from Japanese women) they needed.

 

The whitewashing of Hirohito’s role in the war is beautifully explained and we understand how it suited McArthur, the general overseeing Japan’s transformations and the conservative elite of Japan themselves. The transformation of the Emperor as a figurehead despite his desire to play the absolute monarch even after the war is well told.

 

We understand the current controversy over the Yakusuni Shrine and the visits of the LDP Prime Ministers in cotext. The LDP is like the “whigs” who supported continued UK rule in USA and the DPJ are the leftist and anti-monarchist group that morphed into libertarians. The ancient custom of emperor worship did not really go away easily and the easing out of the emperor from his political role was a struggle with many politicians and a significant section of the older people being against the diminution of the emperor’s role.

 

The end of the book spells it all out for you, including Hirohito’s refusal to quietly go into the ceremonial role right up to the very end.

 

An interesting mix of boring and absorbing portions, this book gets a 6/10 from me.

 

  • – Krishna

December 27, 2015

Book: The Internet Is A Playground by David Thorne

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:36 pm

imageHilarious real emails start off the book, with the now famous “I drew a spider in lieu of the $233 and odd that I owe you because I judge this to be of that value” email chain. Then there is a hilarious interchange about creating a logo for a new business that the founder expects to be the next Twitter.

Then it deteriorates to one liners from David’s family – his son’s utterances at various points lovingly collected and presented, for example. Then comes a tedious piece about monkeys which is not very humorous, nor very creative. With very little effort and imagination, one can write hundreds of these, and the author has written, literally, what seems to be hundreds of pointless musings.

 

And then David decides to publish all this junk into a book. It still would not fill a decent sized book and so what does he do? Decide to write just one or two sentences per page so that you get it to fill in enough pages for a book. Problem solved.

 

And the wise-ass comments on interminably long emails tend to get boring after a while.

 

The piece about the missing cat is mildly amusing but the one about the head lice is simply stupid.

 

And what about the “Internet” part in the title? Most of it is email correspondence. Probably made up. Does David think that Internet is all email? If it is because the contents of the book started off as a blog, that is a pure excuse for this title anyway.

 

Why do they all look made up? Because the insolent and stupid replies to their questions elicit unexpectedly puzzled responses from people trying to just do their job (impose fines, or collect electricity bills). In real life, the notes would have been ignored with just a warning that if he does not pay the fine, the services will be terminated or he would be evicted or whatever. Not interminable questions on why he has disguised the dog as a bear by putting a blanket on it or what a portal could be.

 

And incredibly, at the end of it all, they agree to waive the fees or verify meter reading or whatever David wants, without even his asking. This definitely could happen, in a juvenile mind’s daydreaming world. Chalk up another point for why I think it is all made up.

 

The entire book is filled with such frivolous babble. It may have worked on a website – not for me there either –  but not as a book, unless you are already a dedicated fan of David’s website.

 

Also reminds me of the 12 year old goofs in exams which you can see collected on the Internet. From the minds of a twelve year old, some of these may be really funny – because of the context. From an adult writer? Judge for yourself. Here is a sample : “ So then suns are really clouds of light? Yes, and then they rain sunshine”.

 

And a bit of autobiography where we are treated to all the details of David’s first ever trip to the United States, which is another piece in the same, boring, mode as the rest of the book.

 

It does not deserve more than 2/10

– – Krishna

December 21, 2015

Book: Eels – An Exploration by James Prosek

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:37 am

imageThe title, the cover… Everything about this book promises to be exciting. It looks like it is a work of nonfiction, one of scientific explanation about the creatures that we all want to know. I definitely expected the excitement on the lines of those in The Electric Universe or A Short History of Nearly Everything.   It is definitely non fiction, but it is a very different book from those two.

 

Fascination with eels started a long time ago for James and the enthusiasm shows, initially. So your hopes are up.

 

The fascinating thing about no one having ever caught a pregnant eel though everyone knows that they spawn is good. So are the stories about how freshwater eels go deep into the ocean to produce offsprings. Your hopes stay up.

 

Then, like a bad documentary, it gets boring. Eel trapping described in needless detail and slows the whole book down. Jake, the trapper rhapsodises about how he catches eels.

If you think it is the exhilerating description to carry you along in its enthusiasm, you are in for a huge disappointment. Stilted prose and the author wandering off the subject for many pages makes this a fairly boring book.

 

Have you seen some wildlife documentaries where, perhaps since they do not have enough footage on the animals, fill in boring details on the crew, who they are, how they prepared for the shoot, where they waited etc making it a documentary mainly about a bunch of people with a little animal footage thrown in to justify the title about wildlife? This books smells like that. It feels as though James, lacking enough to say about eels even in this slim book, filled it with travels, the places he went to, the people he met, what their belief systems were, why they do what they do etc. All tangentially relevant to the subject matter, I grant you, but not the real subject matter that you would be after, lured in by the title and the cover design.

 

After learning all about Jack the trapper, you meet Stella, the Maori eel researcher in New Zeland, and her group. You travel with them to various places and learn about various things. It is all about as interesting as watching a plant grow. More and more about how the insensitive Englishman in his arrogance destroyed the basic culture and livelihood of the indigenous people irrevocably by building dams and producing clean energy. There are some interesting new pieces about how the pakehas (white foreigners) deliberately set out to destroy eels as they were a threat to their transplanted trout that they brought into New Zeland’s pristine environment to “give them a familiar feeling” and allow their fishing far from their shores (England). They also introduced many other animal species, changing the ecosystem of the country for good. All interesting information but nothing to do with the lifestyle of Eels or their unique characteristics, which is what I thought the book should be about. The old adage about “Never judge a book by its cover” was never truer than when considering this book to read.

 

Even the local colour added sucks. The descriptions are like – ‘he got up to get more sugar for the tea’ and later ‘he said, stirring the sugar in the tea with a small spoon’ and you dread things  that thankfully never come – ‘he took a sip of his tea’ and ‘he took another sip of his tea. Now the tea level had reduced’. ‘He noticed that the small spoon was in the tea so he took it out’  And so on.

 

The one interesting thing that comes out is the fact that pigs are called “Captain Cookers” in New Zealand since they were brought in by Captain Cook and his team!

More everyday story and more gripes about how modernity is a curse for the ancient ways of living, from other places and detailed explanation of how to reach his remote home. Yawn.

 

And when he caught a fish, he thinks it could be taniwha and sees if it has red eyes! Then he is forced to kill an eel and feels now one with Maori culture from then on but also guilty for the eel. Come on! And the book goes into repeat narration of  how trout was introduced by Europeans into New Zealand several  times in the book.

 

The discussion with Jonathan Yang, who came to US and talks to the author about Eels, has difficulty with English and his conversations are written in the stereotypical Asian language of a person who has limited English. Instead of bringing a sense of reality into the conversation, it just sounds very condescending. In fact, either abject inferiority complex (when it comes to Maoris and how the author is one of a race of people who caused all that trouble to them) or condescension drips from the story and description all the way through the book. Here is a sample of the latter. Jonathan says “”He find many big eels..  make it very easy to ship [eels]” or “Only Taiwan people eat this eel. In China no eat. Wife make soup… make husband strong” or “If you make book about eels, you must go Pohnpei”.  Does that sound as condescending to you as it does to me?

 

Gets worse, he goes meets a Japanese scientist and talks about rubbish that has only peripheral interest to eels.  Then back to the manual dam where Ray builds it by hand every year, spending almost all year doing it, refusing to use any machines and failing to catch eels most of the year. He catches all the eels he can and yet rails against overfishing that is depleting the population. Hmmmm… And wherever he goes he eats eels all year long, all the time.

 

Goes to Pohnpe, and has some boring interactions with people again.

 

What is even more astonishing is this. The author collects stories on eels. Most of them are folksy in nature and very disjointed and he describes them in great detail when he collects these. But, when he goes to another gathering in the same country and asked to narrate what he found out, he starts writing the same story in detail again and I was completely taken aback, wondering if I have to read the same thing again in another page of the story. But after two paragraphs of agonizing repetition, he simply states that he told the other stories and mentions them. It is all about the everyday life of various cultures, which would be interesting if that is what you were looking for in a book but in a book that purports to talk about eels, it is irritating. Even in a book about cultures, the details he brings in of how they made tea and how the old man asked him to buy alcohol and he obliged and how he went and saw many officials in some government set up will make people want to throw the book across the room, I guess.. I definitely resisted the temptation to do just that, many times.
Let us say 2/10

– – Krishna

November 6, 2015

Book: In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:38 pm

imageThe subject matter is at once fascinating and difficult to explain but this book does a great job of it. I would even go so far to say that this is probably one of the best science books I have read.

The book seems to go effortlessly into Quantum physics and describes fabulously what it is.

The uncertainty principle is explained well, with the aid of the electron or light beams through two slits in the card. When he explains the weird phenomenon where the electrons behave one way when observed and quite another when unobserved, you are astounded.

Also beautifully told are: what is the big bang (which is not the bang at all) the expansion of the universe (the stars are not moving away at all) and how Einstein won the Nobel prize for not his Theory of Relativity but for proving that light behaves like a particle sometimes.

Schrodinger, of the cat fame, is considered the father of Quantum Theory and even won a Nobel Prize for it. His opinion of the subject that gave him fame and fortune? “I don’t like it and wish I had nothing to do with it”. Even his famous cat – the thought process – was to demonstrate how absurd the quantum theory can be. Fascinating factoids like this abound in this book.

Gribbin does a remarkable job of explaining the complex phenomena of the Quantum Theory before moving on to the Multiverse.

If you thought what you read so far is bizarre and totally contrary to any normal expectations, wait until you read about the main subject of the book – Multiverse. What you read would seem tame by comparison.

The serious facts sound so bizarre that it feels like a joke played by scientists on unsuspecting lay public.

The concept is this: You know the Schrodinger’s Cat thought problem where a cat could be either dead or alive when the box is opened, right? It postulates that, when you open the box (and this applies to every decision branch in each person’s life – presumably each animal’s life) the entire universe splits into two identical pieces. In one, you find the cat alive and in another, you find the cat dead. No, I am not kidding. And there is no way you can contact anything/ anyone in the other universe, and by extension, there are hundreds of thousands of you in each universe with a different life pattern. Each one is as real as any other; there is no “real” universe. Sounds like any supernatural story right?

Does it not sound similar to other unprovable facts? Ghosts exists but I cannot conclusively prove it; Big Foot exists but never been captured; Loch Ness Monster was sighted… you get the idea.

If science behaves like the weirdest stuff you have ever heard of in all its dead earnest, what is the proof for such an idea? Simply the same as anything else in quantum physics. The equations predict it and it neatly solves all the unsolved puzzles of quantum mechanics! That’s it. For instance, the fact that life exists is dependent on so many coincidental things going exactly right (the exact force of gravity, the exact amount of the weak and strong gravitational forces, the exact speed of the universe expanding etc) that to some scientists, this universe “looks like a put up job”. The multiverse theory neatly solves the puzzle neatly and logically. In all possible combinations, there are multiverses and only in those where these conditions are just right is life possible, and exists.  Interesting idea, right? It is the same theory as evolution, where random mutations go on all the time and beneficial mutations survive to form new life forms and species and harmful mutations die out.

Then there is the even more bizarre concept that these worlds can in fact interact with each other and they do all the time. That is the principle behind the efforts to build a quantum computer, it seems. At this point you check to make sure that this is really a science book and not a practical joke played by someone on you.

A fantastic explanation of why the old thermodynamic equations ignore gravity and how the stars and galaxies form in the primordial soup in the first place. I will let you read the book to get a full gist of it.

When he goes into how multiverse is not “parallel” and gives the example of jumbled pages in a library full of book pieces, your mind goes into further numbing shock. This is the modern theory of science? Wow!

He covers a theory that talks about all life being a simulation inside a computer a la Matrix. In addition, he talks about string theory, which is very nice. For the first time, I understood all this talk about strings and how they come into the picture, about Branes and about the 11 dimensions that you so often hear of. (Explains why can we not see the fifth and sixth dimension etc.)

The whole thing ends with a summation of the theories back to Multiverse and Schrodinger’s Cat. Even though this is the most simplified explanation of current thinking meant for laymen like you and me, it does get heavy in some places, and gets confusing in some places simply due to the nature of the discussions involved.

Also the earlier theories of Multiverse and splitting of the worlds is quietly replaced with more probable theories; however, it is not explicitly renounced and so you finally sit back and wonder ‘How do the theories described at the end of the book tally with the ones in the beginning?’.

I guess some subjects can be made as simple as possible but no simpler, and even at the simplest version such as this one, some readers do not get the full import of the theory.

What you do understand is the surprising new theory of the Black Holes and also of the possibility of designer universes.

I would say 9/10

– – Krishna

October 24, 2015

Book: Running In the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:58 am

imageWe have reviewed some of Michael’s earlier works. (See the earlier reviews of The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero for details). But this book fundamentally is different from the others. The others are fiction – though with his style and penchant for complex formulation and narration, even his fiction is different from other authors – but this is simply a memoir of his early life in Sri Lanka.

It is interesting in parts. He uses the point where he returns to Sri Lanka with his family to revisit his early days as a vehicle for his memories. And his family certainly seems to have been colourful!

His dad seems to have been a wild spirit. Goes off and gets himself engaged to his sister’s best friend. Though unexpected, family welcomes it and then he goes off on another trip and comes back with a wife. No word to the fiancée who may be waiting!

Even after this marriage, he seems to have no intent to contact his earlier betrothed either, leaving the family to do damage control. As if all this is not enough excitement, he then goes off and enrols in Ceylon army suddenly. There has been no warning, no indication earlier to anyone.

In addition to being impulsive and wild, he also seems to have been irresponsible. He does not have a job, and on the occasions when he is forced to find one, does not keep it for long.

The family is a mix of Dutch and Sri Lankan blood and many of them seem to live a highly anglicized life in what was then Ceylon. Western manners, pastimes, music, dress. Interesting. This explains his name and his native country of Sri Lanka.

His father has been a maverick all his life, selling off family property that is not even his (written in a will to his children by his father). There are also very interesting strands of the family story, for example the one about how the original Dutch Ondaatje married a Sinhalese girl; and how his grandfather, who was very dark skinned, was a tyrant in his own family, with a submissive fair skinned mother and lots of children.

The main problem is coherence. Many of the pieces are interesting and many are boring, but they all seem so disjointed. Add to that a jumble of rambling descriptions, (for instance discussions of the Sinhalese alphabet – why the letters are curved ) and a lot of poems, many of which are disjointed as well, and you seem to get lost along the way and wonder if it is really worth putting all that effort to finishing the book.

They are collections of poetic graffiti from an oppressed people who wrote it before perishing from being hemmed into a building by the army and obliterated completely.

Everything feels like reading someone’s disjointed diary entries, which it may have been, really.

There are other interesting pieces – for instance,  the antics of his grandmother, a free spirit, refuses to compromise anything at all. Lives life on her own terms.

His dad is another lunatic who stops trains and fights with mom, another free spirit, when drunk. He made a train move back and forth, commandeering it, and created havoc.

Michael meets the (then) President, who, in the past, was struck senseless by his dad. They wander through the groves and the peacocks strutting nonchalantly inside the latter’s house.

Jumbled up narrations, confusing change of scenes, nothing major once you get past the eccentricity of the characters and the mix of Sinhalese and western genetic mix of the Ondaatjes. Reads like a family diary that you found lying around. Not up to the usual Ondaatje level you have come to expect.

I will award it a 3/10

– – Krishna

June 27, 2015

Book: Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:09 pm

imageThis is the first book written by Bill Bryson, an author of many talents. I have not read this book, but after reading his fabulous book  A Short History of Nearly Everything, I could not wait to read this one. But this book is a lot different from that one is all I can say now. Read on for more details.

Bill, alone and young, in London and lost, not rich and so sleeps on a bench. Goes on his journey to see places in his native England.

Gets a boarding room full of rules on what not to do. He describes the British propensity, amusing to Americans, of being fascinated with the weather, being jogged into high levels of excitement and fervour by a hot beverage (tea of course, what else), thinking their country is so large that going from a place to another (as the author put it ‘the distance an American would drive just to get a taco’) requires discussion of alternate routes etc for hours.

We see that he has the gift of tickling your funny bone from this (very first) book. Other authors could learn a thing or two from Bill on how to write about almost anything in an interesting way that keeps you chuckling through the book. Well, parts of it, anyway.

Fun description of Calais, where, going to France, he finds only Englishmen (and Dover is visible from across the water) and where he buys a tacky angel that sheds seashells and glitter constantly, are humorous. So is his description of the vastness of London.

The picture at the Times before Rupert Murdoch’s takeover and professionalization is interesting.

So where is the beef? Mostly it is all about descriptions of places like a travelog and so there is a lot of limpness in the descriptions and books. He viscerally hates conservatives (and Thatcher especially) – it is obvious. He thinks all public services will be destroyed by the Tories but reading it several decades later, you see how wrong he was.

He goes on wandering and noting the changes ten years later with his witticisms about how jolly Englishmen really are and other notable things. Not great reading but manages to keep you amused for a while.

He goes on to describe various cities in England and the changes wrought in them in his ten year absence and also makes some wry observation about the sunny disposition of the English, the inexplicable perplexity of women when faced with payment at the cash counter of any supermarket, the fact that Chinese have not figured out that a pair of what looks like knitting needles (chop sticks of course) may not the best device to hold and eat food etc.

I cannot honestly say that his descriptions bring the place alive in front of you, as it all reads, at least in parts, like a diary entry of an elderly traveller.

Then comes his notes about men and women, which seem to more belong on a stand up comic’s repertoire than an author – of a travelogue or any other book. He talks about declining industry, how the town has gone to seed, what he personally thinks is good taste and what he does not. It is all so slow and boring, and rather than experiencing Britain through his eyes, you feel chained to him and dragged to places you do not wish to go by yourself.

It is all about what he likes and what he hates, his preferences and misplaced priorities in many cases. His writing is highly prejudiced with his preferences and the humour that is sprinkled amid these ramblings is also sometimes juvenile. Is this the same author who later wrote ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, one of the best pieces of scientific writing? Amazing!

Want a sample of his humour to judge for yourself? “…. is more a hamlet than a village. Do you know the difference between a village and a hamlet? One is a place where people live and the other is a play by Shakespeare’. (Me : Groan….)

And it is all about his personal quarrels over trivia with employees with a huffy ‘Honestly.’ at the end. And tiresome trivia quoted from what seems like travel brochures. Always with ‘Do you know….?’ which is even more annoying. A sample : “Did you know that Scotland produces more college graduates per capita than any other country?”

Not bad but not what I expected either from the fame in the book. Supposed to be the best book too from user rankings. What am I missing?

I would say a 4/10

– – Krishna

April 11, 2015

Book: Lords of Finance by Liaqat Ahmed

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:17 pm

imageStarts very well with Collet Normal DSO, who was the chief of the Bank of England and his nervous breakdown in 1931.

This follows the life of four central bankers (Britain, France, Germany and US) through the Great Depression and the consequent Second World War. Well told story.  The personalities of each is explained before we learn what they do.

The Gold Standard and why it came to be are explained well as well.

Fun facts emerge. For instance, Lloyds of London had insured German tanks and ships so that, in 1912, a British committee was stunned to find out that in the event of a war with Germany, Lloyds would have to compensate Kaiser for the loss of ships or military gear caused by British action! The collective wisdom of that time was that nations were so interlinked in trade that a war was impossible !

The British central banker Montagu Norman’s personal characteristics are very interesting. Unmarried, rich, and very influential but living a spartan life. He is weird, and has personal illnesses including several nervous breakdowns. Goes off in the middle of his work to recover, often for several weeks.

Horace Schacht was the German central banker who is one of the four described. He grew up doing various jobs and was brilliant and ambitious, fired by a determination to be as different as possible from a father, who was a failure.

The third man was Benjamin Strong in US. An employee of Pierpoint Morgan, who was of such legendary influence in financial circles. His wealth was unknown and when he died, proved to be $80 Million (We are talking 1910 dollars!). John D Rockefeller, who was worth about $1 billion in the same money shook his head and said, “And to know that he was not even rich!”

Benjamin himself was not rich but married into a rich family and had a lavish lifestyle on his salary. If he became President of New York Feds he stood to make a fraction of the money.  Emile Moreau is his French counterpart.

The fourth is the French Emile Moreau.

The description of the hyperinflation in Germany are shocking. You thought Zimbabwe’s a few years ago was really bad? You thought the Italian Lira which charged something like a thousand Lira for a coffee (before they chucked it all to join the Euro) was bad? This was far worse! Money was printed in truckloads and people were carrying it in trolleys and baby carts to buy necessities. While you were drinking coffee, the price of it doubled! Butter cost 250 billion Marks, one US dollar fetched 630 billion Marks. Try that for size. No wonder people were extremely frustrated no wonder this, compounded with the pressure of reparations (insisted upon by two fanatical Britishers, not the French who suffered the most in World War I, as the author describes it. ) caused so much angst, no wonder society was chaotic with attacks by ruffians, no wonder even the newfangled fanatic idea called  Nazism did not seem to be such a bad thing.

Keynes, that genius of economics also is intimately involved, though you learn many surprising things about him – he was not impressive to look at and had a very big chip about his looks – he also lost and made money in currency trading, then a new thing. He loved and married a trampy woman who was much married and was given to terrible gaffes with the English language.

The formation of the Federal Reserve with oversight by political persons with no training in finance and thus Strong’s total domination of the Fed are told well. He saw that bond buying and selling by the government is a more effective way to control prices and exchange rate than interest rate hikes and dips, especially in the post gold standard world. But his arrogance, his taking decisions without explaining to anyone caused heartburn and even worse, confusion among other members of the Central Bank.

History told from the Central Banker view means that Hitler’s putsch is almost told as a hearsay.

The insistence of US that Britain return the gold standard and the resistance to both the plan and Norman, who supports these plans are well told. What is interesting is Churchill’s description. He becomes the Chancellor of Exchequer (Finance Minister in any other country!). He was not popular. He switched parties twice (Tory to Liberal and back) based on whom political winds favoured. He was seen as crass, had expensive tastes and was perpetually in debt and by his own admission, ‘knew nothing of finance or economics’. In addition, he surrounded himself with very shady characters and after a brilliant start in important party positions at just the age of 35, he faded away and languished in the sidelines, ignored until he reached fifty, when he became the Chancellor. And he was brought in by the Prime Minister because the latter wanted to keep him close and keep an eye on him and did not trust him to be part of the party but not the cabinet, where he can brew mischief.

Go figure.

The description of William Crapo Durant, the school dropout who founded General Motors, is also very interesting. He was a hustler and GM became great only when he sold it off to a wealthy dynasty in US. He reinvented himself as a kind of currency expert (old time hedge fund manager before that term was invented!)

The depression was in full swing and Edgar Hoover, the President of US was in full denial. Russia sold some of its paintings, in secret, to its capitalist enemy, the US.

Parallels of current depression are striking. Also, due to gold standard funny positions emerged. All gold was in a vault but “earmarked” as French or US and the recession is due to some parts of the same room having more gold than other parts!

The French apathy and its self-centred attempts to retain its politico economic supremacy over the ruins of other European nations is well told. The conditions where banks had to close for three weeks with complete chaos in industry in Germany help provide one more reason as to  why Nazis rose to power.

Britain’s struggle and the decision to go off the gold standard, onto which it should not have gone anyway, is well told. The panic and the disaster spreading across the world is described in vivid detail.

We learn about Roosevelt taking over in the deepest crisis and with Hoover’s men, solving the issue in ten days when Hoover could not in three months. We also learn about Roosevelt  not cooperating with Hoover until he really took charge and could properly take credit for resolving the issue.

Further, Roosevelt shocks his own advisors by going off the gold standard when US had the largest reserves of gold. He seems to have had an intuitive feel for the right thing. Roosevelt did arbitrary increases in spending to shock the US economy out of its downward spiral against expert opinion and it worked!

Schacht collaborated with the Nazis, even writing a grovelling eulogy to Hitler and then later denied any involvement. To be fair, he was not part of the Nazi military circle but allowed himself to be used to provide a veneer of respectability to the regime and was jailed at the end by Hitler since he seems to have plotted to overthrow the Nazis. But when freed and arrested by the Allies, he was “surprised” and soon after, died.

Norman seems to have carried on, losing almost all of his credibility and finally dies as well.

Keynes wrote his seminal work and saw his fame spread high before his death. He made, unmade and remade his fortunes and died a rich man, after seeing the fixed currency system of Bretton Woods in place in collaboration with White, the Treasury Secretary. White himself was the highest ranking finance official and created the system of international payments but he was a Soviet spy from 1935! He even delayed aid to Kai Shang Shek of Korea, allowing China to occupy half of Korea in aid to communism. When unmasked (soon after the death of Keynes) he also suffered a heart attack and died.

Ironic that a Soviet spy was given the control to negotiate IMF and Bretton Woods system and decide how much each country (including the Soviets) can borrow etc.

The epilog is excellent, comparing the cataclysm to the recent crises (the post 2000 dotcom bust, the Mexican crisis, the Latin American and Asian crisis of the nineties, and the latest recession starting in 2008.

Nice story. Many eye opening moments. Well written. Sound economic principles.  Let us say 7/10

– – Krishna

March 15, 2015

Book: Bike Snob by “Bikesnob NYC”

Filed under: Books — Tags: , — krishnafromtoronto @ 3:57 pm

imagesA different kind of book. Initially, It is fascinating and the author BikesnobNYC (“Come on, really?) has a passion for bicycles that comes through loud and clear. He likes bikes how  Lynne Truss does  English Grammer in “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”: Makes you totally enthralled with their descriptions and kindles a passion (at least while you are reading) to the subject matter.

In the beginning of the book, not only the passion but also the humour is all there, and is funny. He talks about the very first bikes where you had to sit and move by pushing with your legs (He calls that ‘Fred Flintstone style’, bringing to mind vividly the Hannah- Barbara image of Fred “driving” his car). He goes on to describe other models, including the first model that became very popular: The Penny-Farthing bike with its mismatched wheels. The language keeps you glued to the pages. For instance, why was the Penny-Farthing bike such a success? In his words “because it was the first contraption that could move without the aid of wind, steam or hairy, flatulent things.” Then he says he looked it up in old newspapers. For the benefit of youngsters, he explains what a newspaper is : “It is where you went for news before the Internet was invented. They look like a giant tablecloth that you open and read”. Funny indeed.

Then the book slows down, lies low and decides to go to sleep for a while. It starts with the place where he reproduces pamphlets from that era in great detail including thanks to a million people, which could have been avoided to increase the narrative pace.

And then it all goes downhill with even more pamphlets described in great detail. The sense of disappointment is profound.

He goes through Queens hoping for a tranquil bike route he found in an ancient newspaper and seems to find only congestion and traffic.

The love of the bike comes through but the book is not very entertaining and only funny in patches if you are not fanatically in love with bikes or cycling. For instance the description pages after pages of the types of cyclists is tedious. So is his lame humour.

A blather about a Bike God walking with him in imagination and how Tom Hanks has gotten too big for his shoes are equally boring.

He rants about the drivers’ attitude to cyclists and why it is annoying. But does not seem to see the point of annoyance for the drivers. Well, this is a book for cyclists by a confirmed cyclist after all. And some of his points are valid, except sharing of the road with equal priority. I think that is valid too, as the cyclists have nowhere else to go when bike paths are not built alongside the road, but the modern roads are not built to accommodate bike riders. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that a cycle can never go as fast as a car even in a low speed zone. (A car in second gear, if you are old enough to remember stick shift)

The humour is juvenile. A twelve year old kid may enjoy this book for humour, and be interested enough in cycling to endure an entire book devoted to the rantings of a committed cyclist, but I am not sure it is for an average reader. A sample of the attempted humour – things that are real culture are Buddhist culture, Polynesian Culture and Throat Culture. (He helpfully explains the obvious in the next paragraph that the last one ‘you get from a doctor’ in case you missed the attempted humour. Get it, you ten year olds who are reading this book?)

And there is only so much you can say about cycling. So how does the author fill up the small number of pages for the book? First he counts the ‘types’ of cyclists the Contraption Captains, Lone Wolf and the Retro Grouch, to just name a few. After that topic goes on and on for a while and finally sputters to a stop, he starts counting cyclist subcultures. There are no cultures in bikes, that is stupid of course. But subcultures? Ah, that, my dear reader, is entirely different. They of course do exist. I am still scratching my head in puzzlement – not over the concept but over why the author does not see the contradictions in these statements.

Then comes some instruction manual type advice on bike maintenance.

Finally, some fun pictures and comments on the good and bad of those bikes that the author came across in his peregrinations around town.

It is all about bikes and so I should not be surprised that it goes into details of bike fashion fiascos, the right and wrong way to ride it, the accessories that make sense or that do not. Why else would you pick up a book purely on biking if not to read all about bikes? But the style is a bit juvenile as is the humour. I am not a loyal biker and many things bored me. I can only rate a book from my perspective and the basic quality. This does not get a high mark in my book.

Perhaps a 3/10

– – Krishna

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