December 9, 2018

Book: A Triumph of Genius by Ronald K Fierstein

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:05 pm

imageThis is a fascinating book about a bit of business history that shook the world but after a few years became pointless. Well told, fascinating, and familiarizes us all with the people, the facts, the emotions and gives a great background on the whole thing. You will love it, if you like nonfiction business history.


Prolog is interesting. When Land’s daughter asks (in 1968) why she cannot see the picture he has taken right away, he vows to make it happen in the future. They walk of the Land family and the young Edwin Land’s obsession with light and polarization of light, so much so that he cannot focus on the rest of the subjects in the university and decides to leave.


Edwin Land, descendent of an immigrant Jews who fled to America to escape persecution in Russia and made good, was fascinated by light and images and stereoscope of the older years. He gives up university and succeeds in continuously improving the machine that makes polarized light. He finally manages to get a process that can be scaled up. This creates the company Polaroid, which enters into contract with Eastman Kodak and also with Ford for headlights.


During the Second World War, Polaroid comes up with very many inventions that helped the Americans as well as made the company rich. Land seems to have been totally inventive, a genius and driven to greater heights. He with his employees  invented the double coloured 3 D glasses, artificial quinine, heat seeking missile technology… there seems to have been no end to his ingenuity.


His discovery of the instant photography and the furore it caused, as well as his attempts to convert from Sepia to black and white are well told. His empathy for a fellow worker who died of cancer is also beautifully described.


It is interesting that he served in the highest scientific committee with many Presidents but resigned when he found himself in the ‘enemies of the government’ list by Nixon! (Only to come back when Ford took over)


When Polaroid completely masks the contribution of Kodak scientists in the joint venture of a colour one-stop photography, Kodak is annoyed. It is also alarmed that Polaroid, the minnow, may grow up to challenge the Goliath Kodak itself, if this takes off in a big way with consumers. So it first tries to develop its own one stop process (that does not use the method of Polaroid and thus does not infringe its patents) and fails.


Kodak starts playing hardball with Polaroid for the chance to get into one click photography. But they are unable to develop anything close to Polaroid’s products even with billions of dollars invested in research. This reminds one of Steve Jobs much later with Apple and it is interesting that Steve was a fan of Land and perhaps copied the showmanship of Land in his company announcements!


Kodak meanwhile goes through a series of CEO changes and realizes that the patents raised by Polaroid block almost all known avenues to instant photography. So it tries to undermine it by challenging the patents in foreign land. Polaroid beefs up its legal armory to defend, knowing that a huge battle is looming.  Great descriptions of what should be boring technical details by Ronald that brings to life their feelings, thoughts, and strategy. This keeps the interest going in what should have been an arcane business event being described, though that event was life and death for Polaroid and future bread and butter for Kodak.


The court case is told in great detail. The author seems to have been part of the Polaroid team, which explains why this story seems so one sided, giving only Polaroid’s version of the story. But the author is skilled because, consider this : The whole story is about a courtroom battle between Kodak and Polaroid. On top of that, the author describes the court case in great detail. Even such arcane and dry subject is turned into a fairly fascinating tale of intellectual sparring between the counsels of both companies and that is no mean task. Kudos to the author for that.


There are some great moments where a company like Kodak who stood synonymous for photography (the same way Xerox did for copiers and Kleenex for tissues – remember ‘the Kodak moment’?) pigheadedly pursued a totally disastrous course with little consideration of the risk it was taking. Even more ironic is that when Polaroid offered the option of a license for a fee, it simply brushed it aside, only to face financial disaster later due to its stubbornness.


Even more ironic is that, just a few years after Polaroid won its victory, the entire instant photography market disappeared completely, thanks to Sony’s introduction of digital photography! Both Polariod and Kodak ignored the disruptive technology until too late and both went bankrupt! This was after someone offered to licence the digital technology to Polaroid, and that company, in a remarkable myopia like the one Kodak exhibited with it, refused the offer!


Talk about ironies. This story abounds in them. The case itself is interesting but the Epilog, that outlines some of the above and what happened to both companies, is totally fascinating. Do not miss it.


The parallels between Land, who joined business acumen, ability to create products that are hugely popular but which the eventual customers did not even realize they needed, and Steve Jobs in a later era is astonishing, perhaps a bit less so when you learn that Steve Jobs was an admirer of Land.


Also, even though the author is clearly biased towards Polaroid and Land, his lament that ‘the poor recognition of Land as a prime inventor and businessman in the mold of Edison is deplorable’ rings true.


It is funny how the author strives to say that it is not a purely eulogistic description of Dr Land’s life, gives a couple of token deficiencies “for the sake of balance” and goes over gooey eyed in admiration of everything that Land did again.


Not that Land is not admirable but you cannot deny that it is a kind of one sided narrative. Very pro Polaroid.


The quote that the author questions is the one that seems to stay in my mind at least : The epic battle for market share in a photographic area that was becoming obsolete even when it was fought was described by someone as ‘Kodak and Polaroid jousting on the deck of the Titanic’. Nice!


But for all that, this book is extremely well written, brings out the drama, even makes arcane legal stuff extremely interesting and gives an excellent summary without going into mind numbing details. The balance is very hard to get but the author manages it perfectly.


An enjoyable read and I will definitely award it a 8/10

–  – Krishna


November 17, 2018

Book: Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands by Nancy Ortberg

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:06 pm

imageThe cover design and the title are the two things that attracts you to the book. Unfortunately, those are the only two things nice about this book. It purports to be a leadership book – nonfiction, and helps you understand the qualities of developing leadership and the traits that make up a leader – at least from the excellent cover and the blurb but does nothing of that sort. Nancy Ortberg is on a different track altogether.


She thinks “leadership” is great and anyone can go grab it. She also thinks that platitudes and many “mother and apple pie” type of homilies make up a leadership book. There is religion mixed in heavily. I have nothing against religious beliefs per se but mixing in God at every second sentence in a book about teaching leadership grates heavily.


Consider this advice for a sample. Have enthusiasm even at 93 years of age – is that leadership? Have a mission statement and breathe it in every step of the way – leadership? Do things well – leadership? Take God’s help – leadership? Don’t know where this one is going.


The next chapter talks about making the team enthused about the vision through concrete experiences which is relevant and makes you think that finally the author is on track to deliver what was promised.


Alas the description is over the top with gushing wonder at how great a group of maintenance workers ‘got’ the vision. And still “leaders” seem to know what to do, as if that is a separate species, away from the worker bees that fill the factory. Very condescending tone all around.


She talks of stone ships – improper methods of leadership which do not work and how to avoid them. She also talks of slowing down to help others develop leadership skills and quotes a scene from Seabiscuit, the movie, as an example.


She talks about recognizing ‘what needs to be managed vs what needs to be solved’. A very good point, proving that this book is not without merit completely. But much of it is mom and pop psychology with weak examples raved about and little common thoughts held up as example of leadership. The leaders seem to be breed apart from the simply led, and ‘have it in them to lead’. Hmmm.


A very boring book on leadership filled with obvious facts, with a few nuggets of new information. You can skip this safely and not lose a whole lot of perspective or learning.


2/ 10

– – Krishna

October 13, 2018

Book: Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 6:29 pm

imageThe book’s subject matter is interesting. This is about the Iranian clandestine program to acquire nuclear status and the covert operation by what proved to be American and Israeli intelligence to disrupt it.

We of course learn of this gradually. The book’s story started with Iranians facing a larger number of reactor failures which surprised the westerners who came to know about it. The numbers were really high, even granting the inexperience of the scientists for whom all this was new. 

.Later, they figured out the cause. The Studnext virus. It was found by a Swedish virus hunting company. Ulasen, a Swedish rootkit analyst and hacker was surprised at the sophistication of the virus infecting the Iranian machines. There is a very interesting account of how a zero day virus differs from other viruses and how it can hide inaccessible to even the most sophisticated antivirus and anti rootkit programs.

But the description may be too technical for a lay man but for an IT person, it is easily understandable, even if you are not an expert in that field. No, not that it is heavily technical and not that you need a deep understanding of computers to get it, and I am not trying to be a snob but to me, it sounds like it is filled with some techie jargon and wondered how much a person with very little computer programming knowledge would have gotten otu of it. 

It appears that the virus is using a legitimate certificate but when the owner of the certificate and Microsoft did not respond to Ulasen’s queries, he publishes the story in his security blog and it creates a storm immediately as the world braces for a new attack. When they figure that it seems to only target an obscure Siemens CNC controller, everyone relaxes. Except for some security experts who refuse to go away.

They track the spread of the virus to an unusual pattern – most in Iran, followed by India and China (the latter two of which are the biggest trading partners to Iran). The book then goes on to track Iran’s nuclear ambitions from the time of Shah.

Nice descriptions of how great code and sloppy code were both found on the virus during the analysis. They look for clues in the path names and the dates and they seem to point to Israel originated virus.

The description of legal sales by companies to governments and others of unknown software vulnerables that the clients can attack is as shocking as it is riveting. Who knew that there was a legitimate business in bugs that is not widely known? 

There is also description on control systems for machines and how they evolved. This is a very thorough description, with computer technical concepts very well explained for the sake of lay folk.

The description of how vulnerable control systems including the smart meters are is truly shocking and is a must read for all those worried about computer security. The book goes into very interesting details of the vulnerabilities and the exposure in a way that it holds the interest of both techie types and laymen, which is an astonishingly good achievement.

Good descriptions. Nice details. Good, interesting way of describing what could have been a boring geeky world of cyberhacking and spy warfare in software. Good job by Kim overall.

The intrigues of the Bush (W) administration and Obama’s subsequent decisions add additional colour to the narration and make it even more enjoyable. Frankly, when I started the book, I did not think that I would enjoy reading the details of the affair so much. I took it up for the information it would contain but the enjoyable ride along the way is a huge bonus.

The final analysis of the implications of this attack, that too from US which has the most to lose through a counterstrike, are fascinating. It is very hard to keep the book both very informative and enjoyable at the same time. It is harder to keep the tempo and pace going throughout the book once you understand the basic subject matter and the premise. Kim does both very well and proves to be a skilful writer of non fiction.




–  –  Krishna


August 30, 2018

Books : How Physics Confronts Reality by Roger G Newton

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:27 pm

imageFascinating, I thought when I started the book. It looked like this is one of those books that bring the excitement of physics alive for the lay reader. But your enthusiasm wanes pretty fast and and the book glides down to the mundane lever.

This book is all about physics and quantum theory. There are other books that we have reviewed on the same subject, but this has a different slant. For instance, the discussion of quantum here is completely unlike anything else. And there are some very interesting tidbits there too.

Quantum was proposed by Max Planck. How? First of all, he saw that a heated iron changed colours in discrete bands. He suggested that the radiation goes in specific amounts. And he supplied a constant (called Planck’s constant from then on) to account for the discrete amount. He thought he was supplying an artificial constant just to get the math right. Later quantum theory established that this is the fundamental nature of things!

Another nugget : When Einstein was 25 in 1905 and working at the Patent Office in Switzerland, he submitted three seminal papers. He considered only one of them as revolutionary. It had to do with the photoelectric effect. What about one of the remaining two papers? One was his Theory of Relativity! Imagine! (However, this paper also became important in establishing the particle nature of light which he had already called quanta in the paper, later on ).

The main issue is that it descends into heavy technology with mathematical formulae and loses you part of the way through. As soon as it climbs out of that confusing equations, and gets interesting, it drops you into another technical mumbo jumbo to the point that you lose the momentum.

Einstein was not happy with the Quantum theory and put up objections after objections with Neils Bohr deflating all of it. Finally Einstein said that even though the facts fit, there will be a ‘fuller’ theory that comes along that will set everything right and this is just a partial manifestation of that theory. Which is why he was looking for a Universal Theory that explains all for the rest of his life with no success.

A small portion of the book is interesting, and despite many other books on the same subject, informative with new perspectives. But most of the book is cryptic and heavily tilted towards mathematics that will be beyond most novices.

There are some interesting pieces like how they figured out magnetism is a wave and a force (shape of iron filings around a magnet) but this could have been made a lot more interesting with a different treatment.

The inference of muons, bosons and fermions is interesting but still complex. The of how the scientists figured out all that invisible stuff like protons, neutrinos, antiprotons etc is interesting and new but the complex explanations do not help if you, like me, are new to this world and a lay person to boot.  And even if you, like me, are determined to plough through difficult subjects and not give up.



–   – Krishna



August 26, 2018

Book: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:23 pm

imageNice. She talks about gender inequality that lingers even after decades of attempts to get women equal status and rights in the US – judging from the corporate success. Simple examples of how she never thought of parking spots for pregnant women until she herself became pregnant and experienced the  difficulties of parking far, and others get you right away. She has an easy, self deprecating and therefore endearing style in talking about serious gender discrimination issues.


I agree that women are being discriminated even after all the struggle over the years and they should get equal treatment but bringing flawed logic in support grates. For instance here is the argument. For each dollar men got women used to get 59 cents forty years ago and despite all the struggles for equality “now” (that is when the book was written) they get 77 cents for every dollar. She quotes someone saying, in jest no doubt, “Forty years and eighteen cents. A dozen eggs have gone up ten times that amount!”  Hang on a minute. We are not comparing absolute salaries. If we did the increase would be much more than 17 percent, more than the eggs. A more apt comparison would be that if the price of white eggs vs brown eggs had gone up 170% (or even 17%) then it would be astonishing. Somehow I do not think it did.  Totally flawed logic like this grates.


She goes on and on about how women suffer from a complex of self confidence. Interesting the first three times but then you yawn.


She keeps giving women advice to get rid of what she calls innate self doubt and grab opportunities with both hands. A lot of examples, a lot of studies quoted, a lot of personal examples, so much so that this feels a bit like an autobiography. Interesting, but not fascinating stuff.


She talks about how opportunities arrive unannounced and how you want to grab them. She talks about mentoring. There are some really good points about women and what is holding them back. Definitely she does not support glass ceilings or conspiracy theories, which is good.


Even if you are not a woman, this gives you a good perspective on what is holding them back. I was pleasantly surprised by the conversational style, which is effective. However, the advice is commonsense and you don’t come out with a profound understanding of new insights. There are no ‘aha’ moments in the book, at least not for me.


Her comments about mentoring and the difficulties it causes women to be mentored without other aspects like sexual interest associated with it in the minds of others is interesting.


She talks about women giving up career choices because of the long term plan to have children way before it happens.


The book really comes into its own and provides new and useful information when Sheryl points out the gender inequality at house help (not news to any of us) but how to tackle it, and why it should be dealt with even when the kids are about grown up and are about to leave the nest – it influences them and their children next when they set up their family. Nice point. Very real.


Also nice is the fact that everyone assumes it is done and equality has been achieved only to find in real workplace that it is not really there still. She has a point about how even well meaning men and women (yes women too) have this cultural baggage from which they are unable to free themselves, and even are unaware of it.


It is interesting that Sheryl does not argue that every woman should aspire to the corporate ladder or that more men should stay at home. She just says that men and women both should be free to choose and also quotes her mom who moved from career to housewife to woman involved in charity and how much she respects her mother. Nice.


But you notice that Sheryl had a privileged life but freely admits that it was easier for her to choose to lean in because of her support system all through her life, including money. But still the message comes across clearly and you cannot disagree with her arguments.


A readable book.   5/ 10


–  –  Krishna


July 28, 2018

Book: The Age of Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael J Casey

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:32 pm

imageStarts well. Women in Afghanistan were expected to hand over the money they make to their husbands but their lives changed dramatically when they were paid by Bitcoin.


Has fun statements at the beginning of the chapters. For instance ‘Money is like muck; not good except it be spread – Francis Bacon’


First the good part – he demystifies the financial system well and the bitcoin technology for non geeks well. He conveys the frenzy and appeal of the bitcoin to extreme libertarians and why it spread to mainstream.


Read it for these, and for the nice history of bitcoin origins, what went before bitcoin by way of e-cash experiments and why bitcoin succeeded when others did not. But don’t get taken in by the excessive zeal and erroneous conclusions of the author who seems to have been carried away by the hyped up promise of the bitcoins. More of it later.


The author talks of the potential revolutionary nature of the technology, if not the coin itself. He describes how the banks got so powerful being intermediaries of ‘trust’ between the two sides of a transaction – which is exactly what a bank is and how it slices off a small portion of the money for  this privilege, earning enormous returns. The author is right that the technology behind the bitcoin (blockchain technology) strikes at the very roots of the current economic organization and therefore has a disruptive power equal to anything in the past.


Excellent introduction as to the fundamental necessity of money as a trust instrument primarily. Also makes you think about what money really is. Or what is the intrinsic worth of a substance like gold and how it derives its value.


The initial struggle of the elusive Nakamoshi to establish bitcoin as an accepted medium of trust among cypherpunk community is new material to many and is fascinating. (His communication was using cryptography and so could not be traced to the real email and/ or to the real person).


Nice introduction on the earlier efforts at cryptographic transaction efforts and how DigiCash almost did in the 90s what bitcoin did later.


I thought initially that the  authors argue that bitcoin would have eliminated the wicked governments from creating the great recessions and the irresponsible bailouts, you take it with a truckload of salt. I do concede that bitcoin eliminates forgery and fraud because the blockchain cannot be tampered with (in theory). Unfortunately even that is not now true as the theft of about $70 million using a flaw in the software demonstrated recently. Since this was written before that event, we will forgive the authors’ assumption that the blockchain is an inviolable register of transactions. But even then, society could not function without debt right? Do the authors envisage a purely cash society using bitcoin with no debt? Do they know how slow the economic growth will be? Once you get debt into the picture, the bitcoin’s power vanishes and you are back in the abuse of financial instruments and the resultant recessions (the highs and lows of the market).


But read on and they are very balanced in their view. They admit to all the hacking into Bitcoin sites and theft of coins, candidly describe all the issues bitcoin faces and why it has not become more popular than it is, despite a fanatic fan base that is spread across the globe and also argue how economics would be served by having a currency that cuts out the middlemen and their endless cuts in every transaction. Fascinating. They also are frank about the risks – once you have given it to someone, you cannot get the bitcoin back – for instance if the goods promised were not delivered. They talk about how you can lose forever the coins you have saved if you forgot the long key or password to the account. They talk about the currency volatility which is the most known risk of bitcoin.


The speculations of the world in uncovering Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity and the ‘scoop’ of newsweek in identifying him as Dorian Nakamoto only to be denied in a cryptic email by Santoshi that ‘I am not Dorian’ are fascinating.


The rise of alternative digital currencies (dubbed altcurrencies) triggers not euphoria among bitcoin fans but fear. Strange.


There is a very nice discussion on how bitcoin mining has become an arms race and how there is diminishing potential for miners. No longer will people become millionaires by mining unless they are the very high end. Also great is the description of how transaction costs come creeping in as bitcoins dwindle as previously programmed. The mining produces transaction confirmation as a byproduct, a nice setup where selfish mining produces communal benefit of transaction confirmation. In short a well rounded, balanced discussion despite what I thought initially.


He talks of the resistance to digital currencies and how in China solutions already exist using traditional infrastructures (like WeChat) that help the poor do most of the things digital currencies do, without the volatility.


While giving the number of financial entities slicing off a bit in every transaction (with the example of buying that Starbucks coffee) they also make a point that cashier these days is an increasingly anachronistic job title. I never thought about it that way but now that it has been pointed out to me, I cannot seem to unthink it! Very true statement.


They talk of the electronic pay and other innovations that make the centralized system of payments easy and therefore slow down the adoption of the decentralized systems like bitcoins.


The conclusions are great. The authors explore the scenarios where alternate currency systems compete for dominance, bitcoin as an exchange network for world currencies, digital dollar where US dollar  becomes digital and crypto currency as a barter like medium of exchange. Very nice, very thought provoking stuff.




–   –  Krishna

May 27, 2018

Book: The Elephant and The Flea by Charles Handy

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:34 pm

imageThis was touted as a business book about how to succeed in large corporations as a (tiny) consultant but it has several surprises when you read it.


First, the story is very personal and is told by the son of a pastor. He has humility, emotions, and talks about himself in a very personal way that makes you instantly empathize with him.


Second, he has a nice flow of narration and it is like sitting next to an avuncular relative reminiscing about his life with a flannel robe and a pint in his hand perhaps. Not very like most of the grim business books, and definitely not the tone adopted by so many : ‘I know what you need to do, now read and learn’. Those two make the book stand apart, but if you do not like that in a business book, then you will be definitely disappointed with this one.


Now about the title –  Charles Handy talks about the fleas, the independent consultants, and the elephants, giant corporations where the fleas inevitably work on contract. I thought it is just a book about how the world has changed, how there are more fleas now than elephant constituents (workers in corporate empires) and how fleas can be effective going into the unfamiliar elephant world. It is all that, but a bonus is a personal peek into the life of Charles and what forces shaped it and what it did to him in terms of style and personality. He has this confidence imparting tone that makes you think that you know him – it is a rare gift. Add to that his self deprecating tone and clear thoughts on how he is totally unqualified for certain tasks because of his background and you end up liking him almost from the beginning of the book.


He teaches his principles from his life experiences, growing up as a son of a priest in rural backwaters of Ireland, and being disappointed by his father’s lack of ambition. His description of his father’s funeral and how he learns that his father’s life was hugely successful  is very touching and heartwarming. He seems to have the knack so brilliantly displayed by James Herbert of touching the right notes and making you warm up to him instantly. His retelling of his issues makes him not just vulnerable in your eyes but also endearing. He has also been leading the charge on defining what education should be like and has chaired many prestigious institutions. However, I began to wonder how much of management theory I really learned while reading the book.


He talks about the old corporations (old elephants) which had jobs for life, a very protected environment, endless profits because of oligopoly and what not. He talks about the modern corporations where it is a very different world, and the corporates who could not adapt to it died. Well written, with a clear vision and articulation.


But some of his views are out there. He argues that even though technology has transformed lives, fundamentally we are the same. He talks about however good the communication and ecommerce have become the logistics remains, and drivers, cooks and others will always be

needed. Good point, until you start thinking of driverless cars. I agree that people will be retrained and survive. He also bemoans the modern fascination with gadgets and what it is doing to the society. There is also a kernel of truth in it and there is some logic in saying that losing the personal touch (the mom and pop bakery around the corner, the handwritten letters, the train conversations) have all been irrevocably lost in some cases. His reminiscences (about, for instance, how he used to ring from Malaysia to England when he was in Shell and what it sounded like) add an inimitable human touch to the stories and make them come alive.


But when he laments about technology and intellectual assets, you realize how old fashioned he really is. One of the gentlemen of olden times, wishing for times when you can touch, feel and look at objects and things. Charming all the way, no doubt.


But he makes great points about the need to change and adapt since we are forced to anyway. And good points about how, even those who consider that they are worse off than their grandfathers will not like to go back to those times to live like them. Some of his points are very interesting. Like I said, I may not agree with many of them, but his points are well made. He talks of the evil of keeping shareholder value as the single most important criteria. If it were up to him, companies will have avuncular interest of employees at heart (even, if you read between the lines, when shareholder value is threatened) but it may not be practical. Leaving aside that, he makes great points of the shareholders – most of them anyway – are not the real ‘owners’ in the traditional sense. They, for instance, did not even pay their money to the company at all, having bought the shares in a secondary market.


Also nice are his laments about the fear when he became independent and how he continually tries to find meaning in life. Masquerading as a corporate book, this is simply an erudite old man’s reminiscences and if you are fooled by the title into thinking it is a business book like I was, it is a bit disappointing.


At the end, he tries to summarize why fleadom may engender selfishness and apathy towards the rest of the society. In all, this does not feel like a corporate book – our instincts at the beginning are right. True, there are some interesting facts. But they are few and far between. You get to look at the life Charles led and what is important to him from his point of view. Is it interesting? Yes. He is a really nice, charming, caring person and it comes through clearly. But it is not a corporate or business book, though the title makes you think it is. It does not, for instance, tell you as a flea, how to influence the elephant where you are currently working. From that point of view, it is a mis-sell.


Also his belief that the modern world with its selfishness will lead to destruction is not borne out when you see the natural philanthropy occurring even today.


But the book in itself is interesting. I will say 6/10

–  –  Krishna

May 19, 2018

Book: Sun in A Bottle by Charles Seife

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:26 pm

imageSometimes, you just have to read a couple of pages in some books to know that this is one that you will enjoy. This seems to be such a book. This is about the quest of humankind to harness fusion as the solution for world’s energy needs. Starts from the gruesome scene of the result of fission, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Also, the subtitle of the book explains the context better. “The Strange History of Fusion and The Science of Wishful Thinking”.

He gives a great layman’s account of what happens inside an atom bomb when the chain reaction starts and why such destructive power is unleashed, without the least bit resorting to any technical mumbo jumbo, the author provides interesting tidbits about how Enrico Fermi was the one who first showed how to control a nuclear reaction so that it does not become runaway (as in a bomb) but harnessed for power (as in a reactor).


Lovely portraits of the scientists themselves, reminding one of the style of that brilliant book from Bill Bryson, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. Consider this. Oppenheimer was the most unlikely person you would pick to head the Manhattan project which was in charge of perfecting the atom bomb for the US during the forties.  He mastered more than half a dozen languages including Sanskrit. But had difficulty even soldering copper wires. He considered himself a failure in Cambridge and contemplated suicide. He became even more erratic and tried to strangle a colleague. And claimed he placed a poisoned apple on the desk of a fellow scientist. Imagine in the current world of Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin – would he now be given a chance to head perhaps the most important scientific project?


Still not convinced? Consider this. At the time of his appointment, Oppenheimer was a security risk.  His brother and sisters in law were members of the communist party.  In addition, his ex-girlfriend was also a member!


It is interesting to know also that Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi were both members of the team. Interesting stuff also about Edward Teller, the sinister scientist with an obsession on fusion and who was going his own way in the project.  Amazingly, Truman is forced to take the side of fission  bomb when it turns out that a senior scientist of the project was exposed as a Russian spy and has been handing the fusion research secrets to the Russians all along.


The latter humiliation of Oppenheimer by a vicious vindictive Teller is well told.


Fabulous backstory about how the scientific community figured out electrons, protons, and neutrons. Even radioactivity is put into perspective better than I have seen done anywhere. Great stuff to read. The chilling plans to build canals and change the shape of the earth is told well. How many of us were unaware of these plans!


To think that Lake Chagan in Russia was actually created by a fusion bomb is astonishing. The tests that America and Russia did, and especially the hoax which took in Juan Peron to spend tens of millions of dollars on a fusion engine by a fake scientist, all are brilliantly told.  It can be a bit too technically oriented (despite being explained in simple terms brilliantly by the author) for people looking for stories but it definitely is fascinating to read.


First he takes on the cold fusion fiasco bordering on fraud by two famous scientists, both with glorious pasts, and their ultimate humiliation and exile to the fringes of the scientific research and he explains it very well.


Again I must reiterate : I have never seen anyone explain complex concepts so well. He explains how lasers are generated. Fascinating. It is by hitting molecules with light particles in a particular way with a particular colour of light. And he describes how when another molecule of light simply passes by, the light emitted by the atom that is hit “marches in lockstep with it”


The fiasco of the Cold Fusion hype is well told. I knew what cold fusion even was only by reading this book. Nice. But the detailed description of failure after failure can seem a bit long and a bit of a narrow focus for some readers.  But his description of  Talayerkhan’s blind pursuit in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence and his final literary evisceration by the scientific community make fascinating reading. Then comes the fiasco of bubble fusion, where scientists seem to border on deceit or at least self deception to claim results that are not from quality experiments and sometimes bordering on fraud.


The next piece about the fusion research and the hidden agenda of the countries is well told.


The ending? Meh. A lot of proselytizing and some repetition of the older ideas. Could have been better. His explanation of complex concepts is awe inspiringly masterly. Just for that, this book should be read by anyone interested in fusion or fission.


In my final rating, the rate is a bit low only because of the subpar ending.



– – Krishna

April 9, 2018

Book: Soft Selling In a Hard World by Jerry Vass

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

imageA combination of training, and self help nonfiction work. It describes how you get to maximise your potential as a salesman, whether you are holding that formal title or not in an organization. I would consider that it is a mixed bag on the whole.


Interesting stuff where he defines the importance of sales and how you can sell your way to the top. It is not only salespeople who sell. Everyone who is successful and rises to the top in any profession is a salesperson.


He seems to think that everyone hates and disparages salesmen, which is puzzling. Yes, snake oil sellers and used car salesmen are universally despised, but others? It is an interesting book but you do not learn any great new concepts but most of what he talks about is common sense.


The Proof Statement? That is what I thought all salespeople did. Apparently not.


There are interesting tips about flanking questions that get beyond the Buyer’s Armour (and a grotesque description and picture of the buyer’s nether parts which are exposed and naked that your question can get at) and get him to both think and get him to your side.


The steps are interesting, but I don’t know if, as he claims, it can work in a cold call and even (as he seems to imply) with a hostile customer.


Nice points about being confident and always having the goal in mind. Nice points about not to use hard sell or oversell. But he says ‘never use the jargon’ which seems a bit excessive.


However, the techniques undeniable make sense and will sharpen the toolkit of any salesman, whether it has the near magical effect that Vass claims for them or not. A useful toolkit to have if you are selling anything.


The one thing that makes an even greater impact is what he says at the beginning of the book. Salesmen are not merely those whose profession is sales. Everyone is a salesman at work. In fact, very successful salespeople are executives and all executives are there because they sold themselves successfully in their career. Nice.

Nice tips. The author is convinced that this will make all the difference between success and failure. I like his confidence but do not share his conviction. What is undeniably true is that it sharpens your arsenal when you go out there to make a cold call.


In summary,  the author does a reasonable but not spectacular job of selling his ideas in the book to you.


6 / 10

– – Krishna

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

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