Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: "Secrets" by Daniel Ellsberg

Do you always do the "right" thing, or do you take the path of least resistance? "Secrets", by Daniel Ellsberg reveals the life of a person who did the right thing.

Daniel Ellsberg is the person who leaked The Pentagon Papers, a secret study about the lessons learned during the Vietnam war. Leaking the study required a lot of personal courage. He was tried for acts of treason, though he was later acquitted. I find the lives of people like Daniel fascinating. They knew the path of least resistance, and yet they actively worked against it because of their conviction about the "right" thing to do. I wonder if I will have the strength that people like Daniel did.

Secrets starts of with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Daniel talks about his observations when he was posted in Vietnam. This section of the book was very riveting: Daniel has incisive observations about the war that he saw. Later, Daniel was a scholar for the RAND corporation, studying the Vietnam war. The Pentagon Papers are the result of this study. Daniel talks about his experience with the secrecy in RAND and the Department of Defense.

I found Daniel's observation about the effect of access to secret clearance beautifully insightful. He warned Kissinger what the access to secret information will do. (Page 237 in the paperback version). I'll paraphrase Daniel's commentary:
At first, you'll feel exhilarated by the volume and extent of information. Then, you'll feel like a fool for having analyzed these topics without even knowing that these secret documents existed. Then, you'll be aware of others who don't have this information, and you'll think that these people are fools. Finally, you'll become incapable of learning from people, because most people don't have access to these secret documents. No matter how great their experience compared to yours, you'll be incapable of learning from them. 
This passage should be read in the original. It is a beautifully crisp understanding of the impact of secret clearances, and power in general.

Daniel talks about his thought-process, and why he decided to release the confidential study. He talks about the impact of the study, and the impact to his freedom. It makes a very interesting read.

It reads like a war thriller, but it carries deep lessons about how difficult it is to do the right thing.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Autobiography of a Yogi

Why not read some third-grade fiction this weekend? Pick up a copy of "Autobiography of a Yoga" by Paramhansa Yogananda.

The book is about a "yogi", a person who has attained enlightenment of some sort. However, the book reads like a supernatural fairy tale. The very first chapter started off with this hoot of a passage.
The helpless humiliations of infancy are not banished from my mind. I was resentfully conscious of not being able to walk or express myself freely....  Psychological ferment and my unresponsive body brought me to many obstinate crying-spells.
The author claims that he was fully conscious of his infancy, and that he cried because he couldn't express himself. This is pretty damn hard to believe. Of course, the author is gone now, and no supporting evidence can be obtained. From what we know about brain development, it is difficult to believe that any child could have such capability. A few sentences before that, he claims that in his previous birth he was a Himalayan yogi. You would think such a highly perceptive creature would wait for the infancy days to get over before trying to talk.

A few pages later,  we get another passage tailor-made for the gullible audience:
An immense flash of light at once manifested to my inward gaze. Diving shapes of saints, sitting in meditating posture in mountain caves, formed like miniature cinema pictures on the large screen of radiance within my forehead.
"Who are you", I spoke aloud
"We are the Himalayan yogis." The celestial response is difficult to describe; my heart was thrilled.
"Ah, I long to go to the Himalayas and become like you!" The vision vanished, but silvery beams expanded in ever-widening circles to infinity.
"What is this wondrous glow"
"I am Iswara, I am Light." The voice was as murmuring clouds.
"I want to be one with Thee!"
It is as poorly written as it is imagined. In the first chapter, he had recognized himself as a Himalayan yogi from a previous birth, and now that he sees a few people more, he needs them to positively identify themselves. The book is filled with extravagant recounting of supernatural events. Looks like the author lived in a charmed world, only dimly aware of laws of Physics. The miracles themselves are difficult to take seriously. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, none of which is provided by the book. And they aren't even written in a funny or engaging manner. They're stated with a nonchalance that suggests that this is commonplace. Even if this were a work of fiction I'd pass it by.

The lesson from the book is that you are a yogi if unnatural stuff happens to you. If it doesn't, tough luck. Maybe next birth pal. Wait this life out. Even as a spiritual text the book is abysmal. It has no lesson about how to live a good life, or how to achieve peace. A much more concise and beautiful lesson is the one-liner from Mae West, "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."

I am amused by "Autobiography of a Yogi". It comes highly recommended from seemingly sane people. People swear by it, and say that it changed their life. You have to be very desperate for meaning if this book gives you any. It is like finding deep meaning in "Baa Baa Black Sheep".

Due to the poorly imagined plot, and the haphazard story-line, I didn't read too far. If someone could point out passages that they thought were spiritually enlightening, I'd be happy to revise my opinion.

(In case you are offended by this: Calm down. If this guy is half as divine as he claims, he won't mind it.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

Want to read a moving novel in sonnets? Grab a copy of "The Golden Gate", by Vikram Seth.

I am prejudiced against "popular" Indian authors. Past experiences have made me critical towards them, especially if their fiction is popular in the West. I don't know what I was thinking when I picked up "The Golden Gate" by Vikram Seth. I had heard of Vikram Seth, but I had not read anything by him.

The Golden Gate is a story about a few friends, and a few years of their life. The book is written entirely in verse, which took me by surprise. It has been a few years since I read verse. I need not have worried, the Golden Gate is a great way to start reading verse again. It is easy to read, and many passages in it are moving, and thought provoking. The book starts out with a person who should be happy at his success, but he feels lonely. It follows his journey, and tells you about his friends, and their lives. Written during the turbulent period of the Vietnam era, it raises interesting questions about life, ambition, following one's dreams, and what it takes to be happy and at peace.

The locations are all from the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco, San Jose, Marin county, and introduce the reader to the joy of living in this wonderful part of the world. It makes the reader appreciate the world we live in, and our friends.

I started out skeptical, and ended up enjoying the book immensely. I was sad when it ended, Vikram had done such a fine job of introducing the characters that they felt like friends.

Get the book, and enter the charming world of Vikram Seth's verse.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Spice Route

Want to know why bay leaves were once more expensive than saffron? Read "The Spice Route", by John Keay.

The book is a history of the Spice Route, and the general quest of Europeans to find exotic aromas and flavors. It goes through time, showing how the trade route was a long chain of sea and overland routes through the Middle Ages. Various spices were harvested in South East Asia: India, Indonesia, and other countries. These were traded by Arabian traders, who brought them to the Middle East. Here, they were traded to others who took them to the Mediterranean.

The history of this route is fascinating: spices were a big motivation for the European powers to expand East and West. Many campaigns were waged: trying all the routes, trying all ways to gain more access. The merchants from Holland successfully bypassed the Mediterranean, and the Spanish and Portuguese managed to go in different directions: the Spanish went towards the New World, while the Portuguese went East towards Goa and Japan. It is difficult to transport a person to that time, where travel was wretched and dangerous, but John does a fine job in giving the reader a flavor of that world.

The spice route led to a colonization of the world, as the European powers carved up the commercial world among themselves. It is instructive to read this history, and learn about how a new improvement fundamentally changes the field.

This book will shed a light into the colonial era, and will take the reader back through time. It made me look at my spice cabinet very differently, and treat my bay leaves with a lot more respect.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: H20 A Biography

Looking for some good science writing about a common topic? Pick up Philip Ball's, "H20, A Biography".

Philip writes about water from a few different angles. It talks about how water originated in the Universe. The book talks about the origin of the Universe (Big Bang, not 6000 years), and how planets were formed. Then it goes into how Earth might have got its water. We take water for granted, but many planets have little or no water at all. If we believe that intelligent life requires water, we need to understand how water could have come around in the first place. It is a very strange set of circumstances that caused Earth to get water and retain it. Many planets might have had water, but they lost it over time. Astronomers and Physicists have looked at Venus and Mars and tried to reason about how Earth might have had water. The Science behind this is quite beautiful and involved, and it helps that Philip explains it so well.

Next, Philip explains how humans discovered water. This is the most interesting part of the book, the history of Science. Ancients thought that water was an element, and they did not know that ice, water and steam are the same compound. This led to a long set of mistakes and it shaped the thinking of early chemists, leading them astray. I found this section remarkable. How does one realize what water contains? Philip lists all the major Physics and Chemistry milestones that allowed humans to recognize that water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. The book also talks of how humans realized that ice, water and steam are the same compound. The mis-steps are very instructive. They lead to a better understanding of how science proceeds and how mistakes are corrected. Early chemists thought that when something is burned, it gives up phlogiston (rather than taking up oxygen). This was an easy mistake, given the instruments of the time. Early chemistry made quick advances when people showed that burning was a process of oxidation, combining chemically with oxygen. (Similar mistakes were made in early experiments with electricity. Electricity was through to flow from the positive lead to the negative lead, when the actual flow is in the opposite direction. Thus, electrons now have a negative charge by convention.)

In the third section, the book talks about the behavior of water in cells, and the anomalous behavior of water under various circumstances: low temperature, high pressure, low pressure, presence of solid bodies. I didn't know much of it, though I confess that I wasn't able to retain much of this information. It was just too dense for me in parts, and I had to skim through. The book ends with drinking water, and explains why the lack of drinking water is one of the biggest problems facing humanity.

The book is a beautiful history of early chemistry and various aspects of water. It does get technical at times explaining in quite some detail how certain things work. It is best to skim such sections and return to them later. A majority of the book is an easy and insightful read.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Seeing Voices

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist of some renown. He has written some fascinating books on the working of the mind: the most famous are "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", and "Musicophilia". "Seeing Voices" is a short book about the deaf.

When I first picked up the book, I wondered if brain development for deaf people is very different from that of hearing people. Oliver's book lists the various ways in which language development suffers if a deaf person isn't allowed to sign naturally, or if he doesn't have access to other people who sign. I didn't know much about sign language before reading the book. Sign language isn't a simple translation of English or Hindi into gestures. Rather, it has its own idioms, its own grammar. So sign has a notion of poetry and of puns.

Oliver lists various cases of deaf people whose parents did not sign. When these children grew up and finally encountered signing, a world of language opened up to them. This process is beautifully described, and provides valuable insights into the working of the language part of the brain. For example, without language, there was no way to describe time: today versus tomorrow blend in if there is no way to describe them.

There are also examples of a few hearing individuals whose language development has been artificially suppressed. These examples showed how both hearing and non-hearing individuals pick up language in similar manner.

"Seeing Voices" is a great book to read if you have a small child in the house. Children learn sign language faster than spoken language. Spoken language requires a complicated co-ordination of the vocal chords, and these develop rather late in children. Sign language requires arm motion which children acquire rather early. Based on this, many hearing parents teach their children sign language. From an early age, the child learns how to express himself: pain, hunger, boredom, and a need for mommy, daddy, or sibling. This allows for a limited communication between parent and child, removing frustrations on both ends.

After reading this book, I could think of many friends who would love to read this. You don't need to be interested in neuroscience, language development, child development, or the world of the deaf to love this book. This short book makes you aware of language, and gives you much to consider about.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

Srinivas Ramanujan was a brilliant Indian mathematician who made seminal contributions to Number Theory and the theory of continued fractions. Robert Kanigel's book, "The Man Who Knew Infinity" is a biography of Ramanujan.

The book talks about Ramanujan's life in quite some detail. Robert has provided a lot of color by traveling to the places involved, and deeply researching Ramanujan's life. The book has photographs of the places and maps of areas, making it easy to identify with the story. The biography is well balanced and impartial. If this was all the book contained, it would already be a worthy read.

What I found most interesting was the associated commentary on Indian society, values and the education system. Ramanujan was ignored by the Indian education system, largely because he refused to conform to its requirements. Ramanujan showed an early brilliance in Mathematics. But the system didn't care for exceptional performance in one field. Due to the inflexibility of the system, the talent of a brilliant mathematician was wasted. Having suffered through the Indian education system, I found the passages revealing. Even back in Ramanujan's day, the system was inflexible and idiotic. Many people recognized the inflexibility of the system, its arbitrary outcome, and the ill effect on genuine talent.

How much part did Indian society and customs play in Ramanujan's downfall? Ramanujan refused to alter his diet in cold, cloudy England. As a result, he got very little vitamin D, and suffered poor health. This is a problem that persists to this day: Indians who firmly adhere to a restricted diet suffer from problems in countries where an Indian diet is unsuitable. Ramanujan's wife was poorly treated by his mother, and this poor treatment led to misunderstanding and stress in Ramanujan's life. Would the outcome have been different if the Indian arranged marriage was not as stifling?

Ramanujan's life is full of questions. It makes me sad at the outcome. But more importantly, it makes me wonder.

Would a Ramanujan be possible today? Could a lower middle class boy with no talent for anything other than Mathematics be recognized as a genius? Could he even reach a point where he could seek collaboration or patronage from Western mathematicians?

It is a very sad tale, though one I think every Indian student should know. Indian students yearn for exposure to foreign education and worldwide recognition. This is one example of a person who got both, and yet he had a sad and lonely life. The outcome could have been so much different. Ramanujan was as good as Euler or a Gauss, according to people who worked with him. And yet his talent was squandered away. An early death, a lonely life full of struggle. And Ramanujan was lucky. Today, he probably would have no hope of success.

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: The Male Brain & The Female Brain

Rather than waste your time with pop-culture books about men and women, how about read books with real science and insight this holiday season?

This is a review of two delightful books called "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain" written by Louann Brizendine. Dr. Brizendine is a professor at UC San Francisco. Both books talk about the peculiarities of each brain from a scientific viewpoint. The books are scientifically accurate, and are accessible to a layperson with no background in neurology.

The books contain a lot of insight about the behavior of both men and women. For example, The Female Brain talks about how women's brain is highly geared towards social connections. It provides many examples to demonstrate this, and talks about the development of a female brain from a newborn to adult and to a mature brain. Along the way, you see the various changes in the brain. A lot of behavior changes accompany the development of the brain. This book made me understand the motivation behind the baffling behavior of friends and relatives.

The Female Brain was the earlier book. Recently, Dr. Brizendine wrote The Male Brain. The second book is as interesting and as revealing as the first. It talks of the development of the male brain through the years. There are many ways in which the adult male brain is different from the teenage male brain. Reading about the male brain allowed me to better understand how I will change as I grow older. It also allowed me to understand male toddlers behavior.

Both books are a quick read, they make cutting-edge scientific research accessible to everyone. This is scientific writing at its best.