Yearly Archives: 2017

Gem in the Lotus

Abraham Eraly

History is not usually kind on its readers, and changing that is probably the biggest advantage this book has to offer. The author makes history accessible through a largely simple narrative and writing style. While he has taught history, I don’t think he is a historian. Thus it isn’t based on what one might call ‘original research’ but more an aggregation of sources. Indeed, the book cites a large number of sources for the information it gives.

The ‘seeding’ begins long before humans arrived on the scene, when plate tectonics created the land mass that is now called the Indian subcontinent. The geological results – the Himalayas that act as a barrier, the fertility of the land etc – have had huge implications on how the civilisation in this part of the world has evolved.

The book moves on to the Indus Valley civilisation, the influx of the Aryans and the Rig Vedic times, the later Vedic times, and in the process, touching upon quite a few popular misconceptions. This entire shift is obviously significant from a civilisational and cultural point of view, but it is also interesting to see the theatre of action shift from the Indus to the Ganga. The societal and cultural milieu is also explained well, using the texts of the time – the Vedas and Upanishads. More

Oota

That local food in a rustic setting thought? Kill it. Oota is in the same building as Windmills Craftworks (map) and run by the same folks, so while the cuisine is definitely what the name suggests – Karnataka – the setting is absolutely fine dining. The clincher is when they explain the non existence of cutlery with “should be eaten with hand for the complete experience” and let you know that if you do feel uncomfortable with that, they could get you cutlery. In fact, I did see a person at a table nearby wrestling with a Maddur Vade armed with a fork. Sigh.

The ambiance is absolutely classy, with lots of rich wood finish, bright cushions, show lamps hanging from the ceiling interspersed with actual lights, and an annapakshi vessel on the table.

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Home Outgrown

On our way to the airport, for what would be one of our shortest trips to Kerala, I told D that I didn’t see myself making this journey a decade from now. At least not framed in the way we do it these days – a trip home. I was wrong – it happened way sooner than a decade.

It wasn’t a comment made lightly – after all, to borrow a phrase, I was referring to a city which had all the places that made up a couple of decades of my life.

What does one go home for? The obvious answer is easy – to spend time with people who matter in one’s life. To note – even that changes during one’s lifetime. But if I have to dig a bit deeper, Rana Dasgupta’s words make sense – when one becomes homesick, it is not a place that one seeks, but oneself, back in time. And when one does that, the props matter. The places, the faces, all reminders of different phases. When they no longer exist, the place is no longer a cure for homesickness. More

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Douglas Rushkoff

At the beginning of the third chapter, the author asks us to imagine a world where there is only one operating system. In such a world, it would be difficult to imagine another OS, or even think of the OS as something that need not be the way it is. That, in a nutshell, is what money has become. “Central currency is the transactional tool that has overwhelmed business itself; money is the tail wagging the economy’s dog” because “money makes money faster than people or companies can create value”. The proof of it is in the abstractions that have come up in history – the stock exchange was an abstraction of commerce, and the derivatives market its further abstraction. The author notes how fitting it was when in 2013, a derivatives exchange had enough ‘value’ to buy the NYSE, its own creator of sorts!

My introductory paragraph, and the title itself might give you the idea that this is some kind of a call for a bloody revolution against capitalism and technology. But it isn’t. The title is based on an incident in 2013 and in fact, the author notes how Google, using its buses, is actually doing its bit to protect the environment. He proceeds to ask “since when has doing the right thing become the wrong thing?” The buses, he argues, are soft targets, and the real culprit is a program that promotes growth above all else. So if the book is a call for revolution, it is against the concept of growth for growth’s sake, because such growth is the enemy of prosperity.  More

Bar Bar

Whitefield scores high on beer, but is relatively less awesome when it comes to cocktails. Shizusan was a welcome relief, and we then found out that Bar Bar had opened right next door. The menu seemed very promising and we landed up there one Saturday evening, braving the Kumbh Mela in front of Phoenix. We weren’t early enough to catch the outside-facing tables, but were comfortably placed at a table near the bar. This portion was rather empty, and we didn’t mind the peace. There was no quiet because the sound system was blaring hits. We didn’t mind that either. The decor echoes the grunge look that Social made familiar, but the decor has more fancy elements and yes, better cutlery! 😉

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The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes

“You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question : what else have I done wrong?” That is the disturbing thought I was left with on the penultimate page of the book. But it wasn’t always that way, you know.
Tony Webster is the narrator of his own life’s story. In the first part, which is about one third of the book, he sets up the context and the characters. There is a deceiving flippancy and brevity about this section of the book, and Tony does seem very capable of being true and objective about his own life. It’s only towards the end of it that one got even a whiff of a suspicion that something different lay ahead.

In the second section, the ‘peacable’ life that Tony desired (or did he?) is his. Even as he celebrates the ordinariness, we do get the other side by his own admission – “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded – and how pitiful that was” and “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.” But it is when he gets the bequest from someone he met 40 yeas ago, and exactly once, that the story really unravels into a “what is really happening here?” mode. More

Empathy with AI

I have increasingly felt that our ability to find common ground is rapidly diminishing. This has a cyclical relationship with empathy and therefore our ability to empathise would reduce too. Since a big pillar of our species is cooperation, there is a good chance that the loss of empathy would lead to extinction. This is essentially what I wrote in Empathy & Extinction. “The death of nuance and the rise of binary.”

That’s why I was intrigued by How AI will teach us how to more empathy. While it did make a compelling argument, I was skeptical because to me, the very idea of empathy is because we took the effort to think about the other person. Despite data and information about ourselves and others that will be fed into AI, would it really be able to sense and help us see the other person’s point of view? More

Brewklyn

In the recent past, whenever we look at “newly opened places” on Zomato, Kalyan Nagar is quite the dominant player. While I am yet to ascertain the exact difference in coordinates between that place and Kammanahalli, given that we’re in Bangalore, it’s probably just a difference on what side of the road one is on! Kammanahalli was mostly nothing when we used to stay in Cox Town a decade ago, but soon after we shifted back to Koramangala, the place started sprouting restaurants and that too varied cuisines! We still hold that grudge and that, plus the thought of having to cross Tin Factory, have kept us away from this part of the town. All we did was look at it guardedly on our way to the airport and back. It was the microbrewery that changed the equation.

And thus we headed to Brewklyn fairly early on a Saturday evening to beat the traffic. (map) I really liked the area – seems well planned, and in the context of eateries very well sorted! The same building has a Barbeque Nation, and across the road, we could see Korean, Chettinad and steak cuisines! Brewklyn is on the 4th and 5th floors, and since we found a nice road-facing spot on the former, we didn’t bother going upstairs until after we finished our meal. On a relative note, I found the ambiance downstairs a little more gastropub (despite the graffiti and the pool table) and the upstairs section more like a brewery. Downstairs, you could seat yourselves on some plush seating inside or like us, watch the skyline on bar stools outside. The view was fantastic, especially so since we reached around dusk.

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When Breath becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi
If we go by Montaigne, Cicero had written that “to study philosophy is to learn to die.” If I go by Paul Kalanithi’s work, it is when you confront mortality that you discover your own philosophy. I have never read death this close, and I am finding it difficult to get words that would accurately describe my reaction to it, so I will restrict myself to the streams of narratives I followed in this book.
The first has less to do with Paul, and more to do with his trade. In his case, it isn’t a trade, it is a calling. However, this book has also given me perspectives which ensure that I would not judge those doctors who consider it a profession, and nothing more. Just to be clear, I am not referring to the monsters which the modern hospital corporations are, but the individual doctors who might appear callous or unfeeling in their interactions with us. Through his description of what the typical doctor goes through when he chooses the profession, Paul shows that doctors are humans too. Maybe we forget that, when we expect empathy and understanding. I can only barely begin to understand now what it means to have the responsibility of a life in your hands. A mistake is not about targets not being achieved or losing a job, a mistake is a life lost, or even worse. How can a person deal with that on a regular basis? And yes, some people can’t!

AI: Learns, Rules

The potential applications of blockchain are fascinating, and Melanie Swan’s book provides an excellent view of these. The part that I found particularly interesting is ‘buried’ on page 26 – the blockchain as a path to artificial intelligence. This happens through the increasing advancement of smart contracts on automation, autonomy and complexity parameters through an emergent form of AI that develops. Either by the introduction of non AI, non blockchain rule- based systems or by the implementation of programmatic ideas from AI research fields.

It led me to think of the development of AI in a Conway’s Game of Life manner – a zero player game that starts with an initial state and evolves based on the rules, and interactions with other entities within the system. In the recent past, I have come across several phenomena that are interesting especially when seen in this frame. More