Creative common license

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Review: The Invisible Man and The Country of the Blind

The Invisible, The Country of The Blind
Both by H.G. Wells


It is shocking that i have never read H.G. Wells before. I cant believe how it happened. But i am glad that i have done so now. I loved both The Invisible and The Country of The Blind. In addition i read The Start which i found it to be so-so and finally i started The island of Dr. Moreau but have not been able to finish it so far.

The premise is awesome and so superbly set in The Invisible and The Country of the Blind. The invisible is a story of a man who has become invisible by his experiments. Invisibility to many would be a super power, people may wish for it in their dreams. But in Wells version, all is not well for the invisible man. It is only his body that is invisible. If we wears a coat, which he has to in order to protect against the harsh weather, his outline is visible. The Chinese proverb "Beware of what you wish, it may come true" is beautifully illustrated in this book as the invisible man struggles to survive. The reaction of society to invisibility is fascinating.

In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is the king. So goes the proverb, but is it so? Wells takes up this question and addresses it in his masterpiece story of The Country of the Blind.  In the country, people have been blind for ages, so much so that their language has no words for "see" and "sight". The visitor with eyesight has a hard time in explaining them that he can see and is eventually considered to be delusional.

Wells' writings fall under science fiction genre, but for Wells sci-fi is just a means to break our beliefs and rules. Sci-fi just gives him tools to create the what-if scenarion, what follows after that is a sheer analysis of human beings and their actions. Both these books are very highly recommended.

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left hand of Darkness
By Ursula Leguin

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light. 
Two are one, life and death,
lying together like lovers in Kemmer, 
like hands joined together, 
like the end and the way


Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula award. The Left Hand of Darkness in the genre of other fantasy novels is like a  documentary in the genre of drama films. That is to say, it is a difficult to read a surprising fact for a book which won the audience award for  best fantasy novel of its year.

Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet called Winter where temperatures are always cold. Events are set in motion two years after Genry Ai, a messenger from Ekumen which is basically a "League of All Worlds" arrives at Winter. Genry Ai wants Winter to join the league. But Winter has its own countries and each country has its own ambitions.

The citizens of Winter called Gethenians are hermaphrodites though they require a sexual partner. But anyone could be a child bearer. Gethenians could be a male in some cases and women in others. Ursula LeGuin explains brilliantly how a society without the man-woman dichotomy would look like, how a gender less society would shape up; what is the meaning of love, jealousy in such a world.

At the same time, we are always reminded that everything is happening in a extremely cold planet. Gethenians have 66 words for ice,snow and its other variants. Winter's coldness seeps into the souls of its citizens. Gethenians are lonely, asocial, hard beings with a very slow pace of technological advancement.  Cold slows everything down, decision making takes forever.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an experiment in the fantasy genre wherein what all the emphasis is given to the fantasy. It is incredibly dense in imagination, even the plot is aligned in a way that its aim is to explore the planet in more detail. LeGuin's writing make it believable and makes us wanting for more.  We, like the messenger, are just an observer watching a theater unfold in front of us act by act.  LeGuin also throws in some myth stories and a Gethenian POV which further influences our understanding of their world.

Reading now as part of coursera, i can see why others hated this book. It was very different from rest of the readings. I found it to be interesting, a little difficult but overall with a positive sentiment. I can not say highly recommended but read it as if you read a classic.

Book Review: Herland

Herland
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman



Herland is a feminist utopian novel about a country which comprises only of women. The story is told from the perspective of Van who among his two friends, all three men, visit this country with the intention of exploring it. But soon they are caught and held under guard where they learn Herland's language while Herland citizens learn English so that they can exchange ideas.

What follows is a fantasy like no other. By fantasy, i mean how Dr. Eric Rabkin defines it -
"Eric S. Rabkin defines literary fantasy as 'the continuing diametric reversal of the ground rules within a narrative world." Gilman tears down one rule after another - be it social inequalities, gender bias, raising children, education, economics, religion, governance and so much so that she even challenges the role of history.

First, in case by case, she blasts the world of men. It must be kept in mind that this novel was written in early 20th century when women didn't enjoy as much rights as they do now. In Herland, women work, they are independent - socially, economically. They are strong, there is no distinction between manly and womanly task; women are scientists, political leaders, security chiefs.  Women do not enjoy jewelry or any fancy shiny objects. They are highly practical and intellectual.  In a case by case basis, she shatters the prejudices of those times. 

Gilman does not restrict herself to gender basis. She goes beyond in other spheres such as child rearing and education. In Herland child raising is a communal job, the best in the community are assigned this job. Children are future, they need to be nourished, bred and they should understand the nature that is around them and in them. 

Perhaps, the most profound thing that struck me was the concept of history. Herland document their history but they do not pay much heed to it. Their rules and laws change every two decades. They look up to history just as a tool to learn. They take pride in the fact the future generation will be smarter than the current generation and will make rules that are better suited. There is no shame in acknowledging that past was inaccurate. 

Gilman also addresses the notion of population - In Herland, not everybody is allowed to bear a child. It may appear that this is a violation of freedom, a fundamental right. But in Herland, community comes before an individual. Free will, fundamental rights, freedom belongs to community first, and then to individual. Herland makes a case that by proper education, a community can be created which understands this ideology as well.


This was my first utopian novel. I had utopian novels would make me happy as "all is well in utopia". But Herland pinches you with every page turn. All is indeed well in utopia but it is the contrast with our world that hurts. The visitors in Herland were from US, not from anywhere in US but that too California. They are ashamed to answer questions posed by Herlanders about practices in their homeland as they think that they realize that they are so sub-par. I just wonder what would have happened had they been from India.

Book Review: Curfewed night

Imagine a thousand shouts at the highest pitch, imagine shrieks all around you; imagine a piercing sound that forces you to put hands on your ears but they are of no help. But now imagine that its all muted, silence everywhere, all that you are left with are images that produced those shrieks. That is what it feels to be in Kashmir.

I was a tourist in Kashmir last month. Like any tourist, i was mesmerized by Kashmir's beauty. Yet, there was something kept the subconscious alert, a nagging tension in the air. The omnipresence and perennial presence of police force, distrust of the army wallahs towards localites, so few development indicators in the capital of a state and a feeling that everybody has adjusted to this kind of lifestyle.
 Before this book, I was ignorant about the violence in Kashmir - who are these terrorists? what do they want?

Basharat Peer's Curfewed night is a beautifully written memoir that carefully documents life in the valley in 90s and first decade of this century. Through his eyes, we witness how people live in terror day after day; what people do when there is a bomb blast right near your house; how one studies in school when there is an army stakeout right outside and sometimes even firing. Basharat offers us a bird's eye view of how people gave up their lives to join the freedom struggle and the toll it had on their families and loved ones. In the second half of book, we witness the aftermath of the struggle, how army units tortured people,  atrocities committed from both sides and how people are now getting on with the next chapter of their lives.

Basharat never tries to be preachy, there is rarely a discussion on ideology, although Basharat tries his best to share the causality. Lecturing about "effect" is useless unless  "cause" is understood.  What Basharat brings to the whole Kashmir affair is the humanity in it - beyond the state, the borders and governance, there are people who live there, people who react to what they see and hear.

Then there is a chapter on certain issues like getting an apartment for Kashmiris outside Kashmir.  A section on how Kasmiri Pandits live in refugee camps, the sense of longing that they have to their homeland. How people hang bedsheets as curtains to give an impression that everybody is asleep inside. How a mother saw her son being asked to take a bomb into a building, how armies interrogated people.

At the same time runs a parallel thread on Basharat's personal life, life at home where literature, poetry was given the highest importance. Home where still there was family, values and a sense of connectedness. And what happens to one who has survived a bomb blast just by chance. Basharat, later, while writing this book empties his heart out as he shares his inhibitions in meeting victims. There is a minor incident in which a stranger enters his house and his caretaker quickly comes to his room urging him to hide as the servant claims that the stranger has a gun. This later is proven to be a hoax but Basharat describes the constant terror faced by Kashmiris.

Curfewed night should be read in conjunction with - http://www.caravanmagazine.in/Story/1548/The-Departed.html. The Departed is an excellent report on people who in 90s joined the armed struggle and have now returned disillusioned, lost and without any hope. The central message that comes out from their stories is a realization that violence is not the way to get azaadi. A realization that took them a whole life time.

I finished the book in 6 hrs - 3hrs an evening on two consecutive days. It is a book that we should read just to understand the humanity of people. There is no question of taking sides here. I sympathize with Kashmiris because i see humanity in them. I hope someday somebody will share stories from the army side and we will see humanity from their side. But having said that, i will never accept torture. I believe that restraint and care will make us win more wars than action-reaction.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A comparison of workplaces

Its been six months since i moved back to India from US. I work in IT sector for a well reputed MNC (name withheld). From outside, there is little difference between the workplaces of US and India; after all, what does it take to have an IT setup - floor divided into cubes, each cube having a four-legged desk with one or two big monitors, a  keyboard, mouse and a nice ergonomic chair. Walls decorated with bright colors with inspiring quotes, conference rooms with big wooden tables and voip facility, a pantry area with coffee, soda cans and unhealthy snacks and lastly a table tennis table for employees to flex their muscles.

But its the processes surrounding the workplace that brings out contrast between the two nations. Consider the process of cleaning in a workplace. In US, floors and the common areas were cleaned by the facilities team, the cube is like its owner's private property and hence it was up to the owner to maintain it. Also, most of the cleaning work happened after normal working office hours (typically after 9 pm) so that there is no inconvenience to employees. In comparison, here nothing is private. The desk is wiped clean every day and any stuff on it is organized as they think appropriate. Cleaning is done in morning every day around 8 am, so if you are an early to work kind of person (chiefly to avoid traffic), you are surely to get disturbed.

The cultural differences can be best seen at the pantry area. In US, due to is highly individualistic orientation, all snacks are available in small packs. There are no 1Ltr juice tetra packs, no 500ml soda bottles. There is no concept of sharing outside of bread, milk and cereals. In contrast here, snacks like Haldiram mixtures are purchased in big bags, emptied into a transparent plastic jars with spoon and is shared by everybody. We even buy chips/biscuits in large packs and there are empty plastic boxes to  keep the half eaten packs. In contrast, in US, it was almost like a crime to leave a  half eaten pack; we used to get threat mails that our snacks supply will be cut off if half eaten packs were found. Eat what you can and throw the rest is the mantra there. There was a time when even water was available in 250 ml plastic bottles which was later removed when a few of us complained that it causes too much plastic waste. There is a sort of apathy towards waste generated.
There is a forever paranoia of theft here. With every facility here, there are "security" strings attached. For example, bats and balls needed to play table tennis are kept with a security guard. One needs to sign his/her name before they can be issued, just like in a library. Office stationery follows similar pattern, even getting a pen requires a signature. Every night, all the snack boxes are locked in, refrigerator too is locked. Fundamentally, there is forever a feeling of mistrust between administrative team and cleaning staff. While in US, nothing was ever locked.

The worst of all comparison is seen at the toilet.  Here, there is one men and one women loo rest room for a floor which has a capacity of about 250 people. One cleaning person is posted for each restroom; he is always present inside the already suffocating room trying to act invisible for the rest of us. I am not sure why he is asked to be present inside all the time. In contrast, in US, not only there were more number of restrooms, they were more airy and cleaned twice every day at fixed times; no one was required to be present inside.

Parking is again a very interesting case study. Everybody owns and driver a car in US. Hence number of parking spots is roughly the same as number of cubes. But in India,  as per the Bangalore Building-Bye laws, 2003, a company needs to have one parking space for every 50 sq mts of office floor space. It is independent of how many cubes there can be in 50sq mts. The writer acknowledges that if everyone drives to work on his own car, Bangalore would choke and die.  But, having one parking space for every 30 people also does not make sense. 

It is not my intention to establish superiority of one over another. There is always a reason of why things exist as they are. The security paranoia may be due to past incidents of theft which may exist because of the disproportionate income levels between the cleaning staff and employees. My intention is for us to acknowledge, learn and then evolve to make things better.  What i do want is for all of us (including myself) to take more responsibility, acknowledge the humanity of cleaning staff and lastly, design processes that rather than creating barriers, makes us more efficient.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Long Strides - The story of KTM 2012


The pain has not gone out yet. There is still dard-e-disco happening in my whole body. It took me about 3hrs 15 mins (final timing is not out yet) for me to finish KTM Half marathon today - first half marathon in India, second HM of my life.  Although my goal was to not run for time, but i had expected better from myself.

 Just before the race start, we saw the Sun as a giant red-ball rising far away. It was a very scenic sunrise, but we all knew that  soon we will hate it. My race start was just the way i had wanted - steady rhythm and decent pace. It was all going to plan, i was at the half way point and now i just had to return back. But just when i started to walk back, i started to feel the heat.

During my training, i had always drank water, no electrol/tang or gatorade, plain water. I also knew that 21Km can be done without any salt pills, bananas or other foods. During my first half, i smiled when i saw Peanuts, Salted potato chips, sandwiches there. But during second half, i started feeling dizzy. I instinctively knew that i am getting dehydrated, i felt salt particles on my face and arms. I had heard people fainting during races, i had never imagined it would be me but with my current form, i knew i had to do something.

Running is not a competitive event. If it is at all a race, it is with oneself. Running is an art of knowing oneself, paying to attention to tiny bodily functions, it is a feedback mechanism. At the 12.5K water stop, i just drank water, still believing that water will take care of everything. The Sun was now burning on me and my pace slowed down. I was feeling more dizzy. Somehow i reached to 14K water stop and i knew i had to do something.I gulped down 4-5 glasses of electrol. Not knowing how the food will react to my body, i chose to eat everything in less quantities - 2 peanuts, 1 chip, small orange piece, half sandwich. Not everything can be bad.  When i started running, very soon i realized that i had over compensated and now found even more difficult to run.

At this point, i would like to take you back in time. I had been fairly regular in Runners High  runs during the season. About 5 weeks ago, i ran 18K with no difficulty at all at the Decathlon trail. Then i left for Himalayan trek where i did about 12Km trek everyday for six straight days and this included a good deal of ascent. After the trek, i was fairly confident that i was ready for the half marathon. So confident that i skipped next two weeks of runs. Stupid! Stupid!

At 14.5K, i decided that this is not going to work, so i went towards a shaded tree and just sat down.  At this point, i was in a give-up state - I wanted to run but all i could manage was walk. I needed a new plan. For about 3-4 mins, i just sat there. I knew that i was not in for time, but i wanted a good run for me.  Those precious mins of pure relaxation did me a world of good. I was back on my feet and ran until the 17K mark at a steady pace. But dehydration kicked in again. My legs were aching now, as if they also wanted water. I was no longer sweating as it seemed that my body didn't had that much water to spare.  From 17K, i was mostly walking up until i reached 20K.

Few meters before 20K a man running in opposite direction said - "What are you waiting for? Just run and finish the race". So started my jog. There were wonderful people in the last km to boost my morale. About 150m before the finish line, Santosh yelled - "Long Strides!" And like a muscle memory, they came - Long strides. I knew that this has not been a good run but my finish will be a good one.  Long strides! A man joins me at the 100m to run with me, pushing me. Longer strides. I smiled and in a flash i was across the finish line. A big thanks to Santosh and Runners High unit for making this happen.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Life in July 15 - Sept 1

Books, Books and books. This is how i would describe the last month and half. A lot of reading has been done and a lot is yet to be done. Here are the highlights -


~Signed up for the coursera course - Fantasy and Science Fiction. As part of its syllabus, it requires reading about 10 books in 10 weeks. I am about mid way and so far, i have enjoyed books read so far, the future books are also awaited with anticipation. But the course is very hectic. Read books, right a critical analysis, evaluate peers and listen to lectures , overall, its in the tune of about 25 hrs per week (That is one full day). With work and other commitments, it has been a very hectic but enjoyable journey so far. The books read so far are -
Grimm's fairy tales - http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/08/grimms-fairy-tales.html
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - Didn't like reading them. Yes, the language was great, wordplay was highly amusing but the story/plot was so absurd, incomplete and felt immaturish :)
Dracula (Week 3) and Frankenstein (Week 4) - http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/08/dracula-and-frankenstein.html
Week 5: Hawthorne's short stories - Rappacini's Daughter, The Artist and the Beautiful, The Birthmark and Dr. Heidegger's experiment. Short stories were fascinating, very creative and amusing. Week 4 also included Poe's collection but i didn't get time to read them. For some reason, i liked the big novel plots better as there is more time/characters to play around.
Week 6 - H.G. Wells' stories - The country of the blind (read), The Invisible man(read), The star (yet to read) and The Island of Dr. Monreau (yet to read).   I liked invisible man. One would assume that being invisible would be a boon but Wells digs deeper and what follows is a fascinating tale.
Overall, i am happy in reading these books. I am not too much able to appreciate the genre in an academic sense but as a reader, i am loving it!

~ Signed up for another coursera course - Listening to World music. Took it religiously for first two weeks, did the third week hastily and missed fourth week due to trek. Realized that my third week assignment was incomplete hence i will not get a certificate. So, have decided to drop it now. It was getting too hectic as well.

~ Started another course - Introduction to Sustainability.

~ Kashmir trek - http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/08/kashmir.html

~ BPIBC Meetup books -
July: Small is Beautiful -  http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/07/book-review-small-is-beautiful.html
August: Why Nations Fail -  http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/09/why-nations-fail-review.html
September: Curfewed night. Finished the book yesterday, review coming out soon.

~iWeekend at Hyderabad - Went to ISB Hyderabad to mentor at the iWeekend event as part of the group  Hatch. Very informative. The workshop was quite interesting, a lot of things to learn in addition to mentoring. Liked the enthu in junta and realized how important it is to look at the complete picture. Often listening to ideas from others, one realizes that so many holes are there. Meeting old friends at ISB is always a plus.

~Movies:
The good ones - The Dark knight rises (thrice - dont ask how, and i find the movie ok), kahaani, Paan Singh Tomar , the cult Gangs of Wasseypur I and II, very very good.
The bad ones - The bourne legacy(WTF was that).
Documentaries - Khayal Darpan (http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/08/khayal-darpan.html)  and Jai Bhim Comrade (http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2012/08/jai-bhim-comrade.html)
Big fan of Nawazzudin Siddiqui now.
Watching 3rd rock from the Sun re-runs on TV. Loving it! 

~Composting - Started khamba composting at home. Happy to have entered this space. It is still a learning phase. Lot of flies, bad smell, worms etc etc.... all is happening.

~ Lucky Ali concert at Hard Rock cafe. Listened to his songs after such a long time. But again, HRC is not the right place to enjoy his songs. They are not wrong, the drinks do not gel well plus the place was too crowded. He has grown old, but i was happy to see him happy. He has a new album out, yet to check it out.

~ Attended an event at ISB where different people have come together to save the lakes in Bangalore. Was amazed to see so much enthu in people. Also present were representatives from BDA, BBMP, LDA (Lake development authority). Good to see action in this space.

~ Runs: Ran max 18K before the Kashmir trek. Half marathon on 16 Sept. Need to do a long run before that.

~ Work was decent, although a lot of holidays taken. Went to laser tag yesterday. Board game group continues to expand both in people and number of games.





Why Nations Fail Review

Why Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty
By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
http://whynationsfail.com/

WNF was the last meetup's book. Before the last one, we had read and discussed E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. Reading both these books back to back reflects on the contrast in ideologies existent among economists. While SiB talks about decentralized, bottom up, distributed development, WNF comes with a top-down narrative and gives its own theory of why nations fail/succeed.  SiB was mainly an ideology, its reasoning came from an adherence to rationality and common good. WNF substantiates its theory by drawing lessons from history; how countries shaped up over time and why few were prosperous while others in misery. I agree with both the bottom-up and top-down theories. I think they will meet in the middle somewhere and will be mostly same. The key point of contention comes in the means - aka the process. SiB was very careful in describing the means; the process of development should be sustainable. In contrast, WNF talks about institutions; if the institutions are sustainable, its processes will be sustainable as well.But sustainable institutions are very difficult to achieve.



WNF starts brilliantly, debunking the existential theories (and their respective economists) by contradicting all of them. Previously the failure of nations was attributed to cultural factors or geographic issues or people. Geographic and culture factors seem implausible even for a lay man, WNF proves them wrong in an more academic manner. What follows after these theories are proven false is a new theory based on data, real historic data.

At the heart of Daron and James argument are three concepts - Extractive institutions, Inclusive institutions and Creative Destruction.
Extractive Institutions - Institutions whose prosperity benefits only a few, often at the expense of others.
Inclusive Institutions - Instinstitutions which prosper by taking everyone into account, everybody benefits in its prosperity.
Creative Destruction - The process whereby an existing technology is replaced by a new, better (efficient/fast/improved) technology.

The authors argue that the construct of extractive and inclusive institutions applies to both economic and political institutions. A nations succeeds when both its political and economic institutions are inclusive and it should be open for creative destruction. So, all three are needed - (i) Inclusive political institution, (ii) inclusive economic institution and (iii) creative destruction. If any of the three is missing, the nation will eventually fail.  A fat portion of the book is dedicated in explaining the relationship between the above; it is filled with examples on how nations where one was inclusive and other exclusive failed; how nations failed to progress when they crushed creative destruction etc etc.  The book does a great job in justifying the theory; it all makes sense. USA is the poster child (which is true if we look it until the last century), England, Industrial revolution are features very positively, they do a good job in showing how the current rich became so.

Overall, i agree that institutions need to be inclusive. Yes, they are a necessity. They play a huge role,  they are very high impact bodies. But after this my disagreements begin. The first thing that strikes is how they never explain the economic disparity. Inclusive institutions benefit everybody but some get more benefit than others. The poster child country - USA, if we look at it now, its income distribution is highly skewed up. So, even with inclusive political and economic institutions, things can go wrong if the "inclusivity" is unbalanced. I am not advocating a socialistic regime as the solution, i am merely advocating that even this theory has its limits.

Bill of rights, French revolution were all very good but the thing that made Europe was the Industrial revolution, aka the process of creative destruction.  But the book never talks about the relative advantage Britain was during those times. A lot of resources were coming from African/Asian continents. Britain was inclusive in its internal institutions but it was extractive in its external ones. So, even though it prospered internally, the progress definitely came at some cost of other nations; not completely.

Another one that the book misses completely is the impact to environment/ecology even by inclusive institutions. An institution can be inclusive for current citizens but extractive if we include future generations as well. So, the temporal aspect is also missing from these books. Also not included are the social institutions. Social institutions should also be inclusive. For example, take the Indian context, the caste system is a social institution which is inclusive. Race, color, ethnicity are other dimensions based on which social institutions are structured, they are also detrimental to nations. In a way this book manages to avoid it because social institutions are often reflected in economic or political ones. In India, the upper caste were the ones who controlled political and economic institutions and hence they were extractive as well.


Overall, WNF is a brilliant attempt, it succeeds in explaining various scenarios. It also gives a very good outline on how institutions should function.  The book is correct in its inferences for the most part. But just that the theory outlined is not complete. There are parameters that lie outside the three pillars that can also influence the outcome. Nonetheless, WNF is very informative, a fascinating read and very fundamental to understand the present day world.