Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

William Dalrymple 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” This book brings that quote to life! More than the book itself, kudos to Dalrymple for choosing a subject that has so much of relevance in the contemporary era! In fact, I wish it were written a few years earlier. ‘Return of a King’ is the story of the British (East India Company) invasion of Khurasan (modern day Afghanistan) in 1839 in an effort to establish their man Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, (descendant of the Ahmad Shah Durrani, regarded to be the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan) on the Kabul throne in place of the incumbent Dost Mohammed. That was the easy part, but as one Afghan commented then, the British had gotten in, but how would they maintain this status quo, or even get out? In a couple of years, the Afghans, in an ever changing mixture of coalitions, rebelled against the British and massacred them on their way back to Hindustan. The British then created an Army of Retribution to avenge this, and ended up bringing things back to square one.

What set off this chain of events is something I have read about in some Sherlock Holmes adventures and seen alluded to in other works like ‘Kim’. The Great Game, an international milieu of intrigue that pitched the mighty powers of the time – Russia and Britain – against one another. Afghanistan, as per British intelligence, was where Russia was poised to strike next, to control Central Asia. This was supposed to be achieved with Dost Mohammed’s help. The Russian plans were far less threatening than reported by the British and ended up creating a war that need not have been. There is some amazing parallel here with what the Russians (80s) and the Americans (now) tried to do in Afghanistan! More

Algorithms of wealth

Some strange quirk in the cosmic order of things led to Landmark shipping me Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First century’ instead of Rana Dasgupta’s Capital! I kept the book (yet to read it though) because economic disparity has been an interest area for a while now, I had touched upon it in the context of AI and job loss in Artificial Humanity. Reading The Black Swan has only accelerated this interest.

Taleb divides the world  into Mediocristan and Extremistan to point out the extent of predictability in the context. Mediocristan can safely use Gaussian distribution, (bell curve)  but in Extemistan, that’s dangerous. From what I understand, given that there’s no real limit upper limit of scale, individual wealth will increasingly behave in a more Extremistan way. To quote his own example, “You randomly sample two persons from the US population. You are told that they earn jointly a million dollars per annum. What is the most likely breakdown of their income? In Mediocristan, the most likely combination is half a million each. In Extremistan, it would be $50,000 and $950,000.” He states that almost all social matters are from Extremistan. More

District 6

Back in September, we heard this fascinating piece of news that Malleswaram got itself a microbrewery! We decided to go there at the very first opportunity. The long weekend in the beginning of October gave us just that – four days of holiday meant that we had enough time to get to the Sheraton (where it is located) and back. (never mind the publishing date) Speaking of the Sheraton, if you try to access District6 via the hotel’s main entrance, you’ll be asked to go right back, take the entrance just before Orion Mall and you’ll find the valet immediately to the left.

The place has a grunge wood exterior, and on a Saturday afternoon, didn’t really have the buzz that one normally sees in a microbrewery. In fact, it seems more like a fine dining restaurant which also happens to serve craft beer, and you’d realise that mostly because of the gleaming vats. There’s a seating area outside where you can sip beer and watch the world go by.

collage1 More

The IoT battlefield

The last time I wrote about the Internet of Things, I hoped for an application layer that could sense and collect data and convert it into use cases. In fact, the title of the post was Interweb of Things, the nuanced difference between them being connection (IoT) and interoperability. (WoT) (read) In the few months since that post, there has been quite some activity in the space. I saw a very useful classification a few days ago that illustrated both the ‘things’ as well as the infrastructure and showed the possibilities of interoperability. (via)

IoT

More

Serious Men

Manu Joseph

“All a man really wants is to be greater than his friends”- Ayyan Mani’s belief is indeed the theme that runs through ‘Serious Men’ though it manifests in different ways across classes. The jacket pitches the plot as the ramifications of Mani’s efforts to raise himself above his peers by creating the myth of his son’s genius, but the story belongs as much to the scientist Arvind Acharya as well – an eccentric genius heading the Institute where Mani works, and whose contempt for his peers and views about the direction that physics should advance in, make him a target.

The narrative switches between the two characters – from Mani’s first salvo in showcasing his son’s non-existent mental abilities to the office politics at the institute to Oparna’s entry in Arvind’s life and so on. The author fully uses the characters to philosophise, (“Hope is a lapse in concentration“) but it’s woven in excellently and doesn’t jar at all. There is some amazing wit – usually acerbic when Acharya is involved (“I have been inside your mind. It was a short journey“)- as well, and again, in line with the nature of the characters. What I really liked is how the author has fleshed out the characters – not just the main ones, but those in a supporting role as well. Their motivations, their own little quirks, all point to a deep insight on how the human mind works, though it is surfaced in unusual ways. More

Of Digital Breadcrumbs and Black Swans

I don’t remember where I first heard ‘Digital breadcrumbs’, but I thought it nailed this blog’s raison d’être. Pages from a human being’s existence on this planet, to be read by himself later in time, and if humanity does get desperate, maybe even by a sociologist later. :D I came across the phrase recently again in this superb post on Farnam Street blog titled  “Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture.”

To quote from it, (originally from the book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture) “At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature.” Indeed, GMail, Facebook, Twitter all have ‘permanent’ records of our conversations and activities. More

Happy Brew

First published in Bangalore Mirror . Happens to be my 50th for the publication.

There’s always something brewing in Koramangala and the latest addition is a Gastro Café named Happy Brew. This is the place that was once occupied by Soul Courtyard. (map) Yes, they have valet parking! From the name, we did expect a microbrewery, but soon learned that the happiness was limited to Kingfisher, which gets branding space all over the place. Thankfully, the pricing and the ambiance ensured that we could adhere to Bangalore’s famous ‘Grin and beer’ philosophy. The place resembles a courtyard more than anything else, with the bar at the centre and ‘good times’ caricature adorning the wall. A flight of stairs leads you to an area which won’t let you get too high, mostly thanks to the really low ceiling! The walls here are made of wooden panels with some lovely black and white photos of smiling people. While it seemed like an excellent area to lounge on a weekend afternoon, the heat became quite unbearable in a while! The playlist was a nostalgia attack – we heard everything from Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie” to Geri Halliwell’s “It’s Raining Men”, and “That Thing You Do” – songs which the younger members in our group didn’t even recognise. But between the songs, the brew and the food, we were all kept reasonably happy!

The drinks menu consists of beer, ‘beer tails’, mocktails, coffee and a few milkshakes. Conveying our order turned out to be tougher than a Mars mission, since it took three attempts before the person who took our order convinced us he had it right! The only ‘beer tail’ that worked was Diesel. (lager with cola) The Beer Mojito and Kiwi’s Paradise (beer with Kiwi) sounded promising but fell flat on taste. The Blue Lagoon, tagged a mocktail, featured Blue Curacao and scored on looks, but that was it. It also didn’t help that a couple of drinks we asked for (including a Brownie shake) weren’t available. When there’s cheap beer, perhaps one shouldn’t hope for a lot more!

collage1

More

An age when age doesn’t matter

While discussing a ’40 under 40′ list, I joked the other day to a colleague that my only chance of getting into one now was to reduce my weight by about 15 kg in a few years! It made me think of a strange yardstick I have employed in valuing others’ achievements – their age. To elaborate, if I came across a person who had attained a measure of success, I would be mollified if I figured that the person was at least as old as I was. If they were younger, mollified would be replaced by mortified. How dare they achieve something earlier in life?! Very strange, I know. I have quite a few theories on it – upbringing, a ‘paying your dues’ perspective, the way I have progressed in my career and what I’ve had to do, or perhaps just the result of being brought up in an age when folks worked hard all their life to attain things that we might consider a basic need now.

I gained freedom from it (or so I think) quite recently. The irony was that this realisation dawned  just after a meeting with someone whom I would say has been quite successful in his profession. As I made my way back home in a cab, I passed quite a few bus stops. It was late evening, and people were waiting for a bus to take them home.  Young people, middle aged people, and even a few old people, their faces echoing their toils. Perhaps they had a long bus ride ahead of them, perhaps they would have to stand all the way, perhaps they would have to get down midway and catch another bus. This was their life everyday, the cards they were dealt. Some might be unhappy, some would have made their peace, and some might even be happy. Their lot in life, or a bus they missed at some point in their life. Even as I had many, many things to be thankful for. So, what business did I have grudging someone because they worked hard and/or were lucky enough to make a mark early in life? More

Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography

Naman Ramachandran

The definitive biography of perhaps the biggest star that India has seen – THE superstar Rajinikanth – is quite a big thing to bite off. At 255 pages, I’m not too sure it does complete justice. This is not to say that the author hasn’t tried, but to me, the contents just didn’t seem enough. In fact, it was in the second half that I felt he was warming up to the task at hand.

The first half includes the early years of Rajinikanth, his entry into movies, and the first decade and a half of his movies. The author does try hard to remain objective and not be in awe of the object of his attention, but that’s obviously not an easy task. What results is a mix of two things – a kind of retrofit applied to his formative years which tries to show that he was always meant to be the Superstar, and an almost bare factual filmography. It’s probably not the author’s fault because he might have found it difficult to find anecdotal material from that era, or people might have altered their memory to fit the image of the superstar who exists now. Either way, the first half swings between these two, and does not really make a great read in terms of narrative. You’ll love it if you’re a Rajini facts junkie and it also shows the amount of research the author has done, as he tries to explain the milieu and the context of life, culture, movies and politics of the era, mostly in Tamil Nadu, but sometimes even beyond that. (this was really done well, I thought) We do get glimpses of Rajini the person, and his life outside cinema, but never really enough. It almost seems as though the author was in a hurry to start with the contemporary era. [To be noted that this part also manages to show how big a star and talented an actor Kamal Hassan was in that era] More

Time, Chaos, and Organisational Change

The first chapter of The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil, is titled The Law of Time and Chaos. The law has two strands- The Law of Increasing Chaos and The Law of Increasing Returns, and together they dictate that in a process, the time interval between salient events (i.e. events that change the nature of the process, or significantly affect the future of the process) expands or contracts along with the amount of chaos.  In the book, this is used to explain evolution. Evolution draws upon the chaos in the larger system in which it takes place for its options for diversity, and evolution builds on its own increasing order. Therefore, in an evolutionary process, order increases exponentially, time speeds up, and the returns accelerate.

It becomes very interesting when I put this in the context of organisations and the business environment they operate in. The business environment consists of various other organisations (exactly like life forms in evolution) and therefore the time interval between salient events (a new ‘disruption’) is becoming shorter. On the flip side, the organisation (akin to evolution of a single organism) is becoming more complex, and thus the time interval between salient events (their own breakthrough developments/innovations) increases. More