bookspluslife

November 5, 2017

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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October 26, 2017

Book: A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Proxmire takes up the cudgels for genocide law afterwards.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

–  –  Krishna

October 23, 2017

Book: Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

7/10

–  – Krishna

August 14, 2016

Book: Contested Will by James Shapiro

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

4/10

– – Krishna

 

 

 

 

June 26, 2016

Book : A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • – Krishna

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

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