Friday, October 15, 2010

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

I just started reading this interesting memoir of Genghis Khan. I am only about 20 pages into it, but for some reason it has started sparking insights about the ways in which a history-changing khan thinks differently from someone like me. I had to write it down and hence this post comes much before I actually complete reading the book :).

This post wont be a book review at all, but rather a ramble about my aha-moments as I read through the first few pages.

Let me start by giving specific examples and use that to drive home my generalized "aha!"s.

One of Genghis Khan's strategy to scare tribes and kingdoms into surrender was to brutally kill his captives in public - burning them alive, using them as cannon balls, just to list a couple. Now that is superlative of cruelty by any standards. But at the same time, he was highly supportive of teachers and doctors and craftsmen, to the extent that he did not even tax them! I wasn't able to wrap my head around the kind of person that he was - did he suffer from MPD? How else can one be both barbaric and thoughtful towards fellow beings? Just as I was about to dismiss him as a confused personality, I realized that his thoughts, principles and priorities were at a totally different plane than mine. With goals as lofty as wanting to unite the world for the greater good of mankind and to reduce tribal feuds, one cannot afford to focus on lesser principles that do not hold any value towards the bigger vision. If brutal murder of a few human lives is what it takes to reduce further bloodshed and is what takes him closer to his all-human-race encompassing dream, then so be it!

Genghis Khan also played on the religious beliefs of common man in his elaborate ploy to earn their loyalities and turn them against those he did not like. This obviously indicates that he himself did not believe in those religious beliefs. What do we do when we do not believe in the religious practices of our families or our clan? We crib about it, refuse to follow them, argue with the folks who hold these beliefs and talk about how we would abolish these baseless beliefs if we got a chance to rule the world. What does this leader do? - he quietly realizes that these religious beliefs or practices were created for a social reason; and uses them to his advantage without creating a hullaballoo about it. If that means he has to act like he holds the same beliefs as the people he is trying to manipulate, then so be it! Participating in a few rituals and following a few pratices that hold no meaning for him is a small price to pay for the large win that it gets him.

My ahas:-
- When we plan towards a goal, we plan for small wins along the way. When the Khan strategizes, his plans involve subjecting himself to small losses or discomfort along the way.
- Family and friends and life's experiences teach us certain principles and we follow these principles in our everyday life as we work towards our goals. The khan's goals defined his principles!

The difference between good and great seems so small, but yet so large.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Do You Care What Other People Think? - Richard Feynman

Yet another book that documents the life of one, if not the only colorful scientist of recent years, What Do You Care What Other People Think? is a 200+ page refreshing read. The book has 2 parts to it, the first covering anecdotes and letters from Feynman's life, including a touching story of his first wife Arlene, who succumbed to tuberculosis quite early in Feynman's life. The second half covers Feynman's involvement in the Rogers Commission, that was formed in 1986 to investigate the Challenger space shuttle incident. The penultimate chapter of the book includes Feynman's report in the Rogers Commission - a frank and candid assessment of the shuttle program and NASA that went out as an appendix in the main report that was submitted to the White House.

The first half of the book makes the reader feel that this is a continuation of the book "Surely Your're Joking". I would agree it is (I have read only half of the SYJ book), but personally I felt the best part of the book was the second half - Feynman's involvement in the Shuttle accident probe. Feynman covers a variety of topics in the first half like his impression of Post-war Poland and his paranoia of being bugged at his Warsaw hotel, his Dad's influence in learning the "scientific" way (knowing the principles rather than the name), his struggles as Arlene - his first wife goes through tuberculosis and her death, his experiences in Japan and so on. It also includes letters written to his family and also letters written by others about him.

In the second part of the book, Feynman gives a detailed description of the Rogers Commission, where he was one of the Commissioners along with people like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. His meticulous investigation methods are impressive as he explains the parts of the shuttle and the problems with the rubber O-rings in the booster rocket field joints that were most probably responsible for the disaster. Feynman, an exponent of the scientific method carries out experiments with pieces of rubber removed from the booster rocket field joints to demonstrate his point on how lower temperatures during launch might have caused fuel leakage on the shuttle.

When involved in the probe, Feynman discovers many irregularities, communication roadblocks and poor administration in NASA. His report observes the following 1) Though the failure probabilities of the O-rings was known to be 1 in a 100 (0.01) (estimated by the O-ring vendor and by the ground engineers at NASA), NASA allowed usage of the O-rings, with the management insisting that the failure probability was 1 in a 100000. NASA was taking it's chances as nothing other than minor incidents had occurred with the use of the O-rings thus far. 2) The shuttle engines are built top down making it very expensive to change and increasing the maintenance overheads of the engines. Feynman argues that for critical parts like the engine, a bottom up approach needs to be taken and robustness of all the components must be ensured before assembly. An aircraft engine is designed bottoms up. 3) Feynman is pretty impressed with the Avionics group of NASA, who build the software for their missions. He commends their methods, the rigorous tests the software is put through at various stages and the redundancy that is built into the shuttle. However, he is not happy with the shuttle's obsolete hardware and the downsizing of testing infrastructure and resources for the software units by NASA. In all of the above points, NASA was trying to save costs by reducing investments in the same safety nets that had made their mission successful so far. For example, the avionics onboard the shuttle was immaculate because of the rigorous tests involved and NASA wanted to downsize the tests themselves.

The book concludes with one of Feynman's lectures on the "Value of Science". The essence is similar to the lectures in the book "The meaning of it all" like the importance of doubt and how social problems are harder than scientific ones.

Overall a weekend read that gives you a peek into the working of America's premier space agency of the 80s.
"To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Open: An autobiography by Andre Agassi

Did you know

(a) That Andre Agassi's long-haired famous mullet was actually a wig?

(b) That the reason he lost the 1990 French Open Final to 30-year old veteran Andres Gomez was because his wig threatened to fall off?

(c) That Agassi has a wonderful way of appearing to compliment people when he's really insulting them? (C.f. Brooke Shields, Pete Sampras).

(d) That he's really really sore about losing so many times to Pete Sampras but can channel his resentment wonderfully by focusing, for example, on Sampras' boringness or his inability to tip well?

(e) That he and Brad Gilbert called Boris Becker "B. B. Socrates" because they thought that he (Becker) tries to come off as an intellectual when he's just an "overgrown farm boy". That Agassi's hatred of Becker sustained him to play well for at least a year?

If you didn't know any of these, and if you like tennis and/or Andre Agassi himself, then by all means, read Open, Agassi's pretty well-written autobiography. I had a great time, for sure.

The first clever thing that Agassi did was in getting J. R. Moehringer to write it for him. The combination of Agassi's personality and acute observations along with Moehringer's writing makes the book worth reading.

Agassi also doesn't make the mistake of trying to distill his life to any easy lessons. Of course, there's a lot about what a tyrant his father was, and how Andre struggled to find himself, but not something like "If you want to lose weight, you must do X, Y and Z."

He also doesn't just give a censored version of his life but puts some of the juicier bits in as well. Drugs, bits of his love life, his tangled relationship with his family, his hair loss, everything's in there. (Not everything, of course. But what's in there is fairly interesting.)

He also gives some wonderful descriptions. Here is one, that occurs at the beginning of the book, of his own exhaustion, and of playing through pain and how the service box appears to shrink in size:
Easier said than done. The box is shrinking. I watch it gradually diminish in size. Can everyone else see what I'm seeing? The box is now the size of a playing card, so small that I'm not sure this ball would fit if I walked it over there and set it down. I toss the ball, hit an alligator-armed server. Out. Of course. Double fault. Deuce number eight.
There's a wonderfully funny passage where he imagines people's reactions had his wig fallen off during his French Open Final:
With every lunge, every leap, I picture it landing on the clay, like a hawk my father shot from the sky. I can hear a gasp going up from the crowd. I can picture millions of people suddenly leaning closer to their TVs, turning to each other and in dozens of languages and dialects saying some version of: Did Andre Agassi's hair just fall off?
His remarks about Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras winning a grand slam before him:
Bad enough that Chang had won a slam before me. And Pete. But Courier too? I can't let that happen.
There's a wonderful description of how he tanks a match (which I don't quite buy):
But losing on purpose isn't easy. It's almost harder than winning. You have to lose in such a away that the crowd can't tell, and in a way that you can't tell -- because of course you're not wholly conscious of losing on purpose. You're not even half conscious. Your mind is tanking, but your body is fighting on. Muscle memory. It's not even all of your mind that purposely loses, but a breakaway faction, a splinter group. The deliberately bad decisions are made in a dark place, far below the surface. You don't do those tiny things you need to do. You don't run the extra few feet, you don't lunge. You're slow to come out of stops. You hesitate to bend or dig. You get handsy, not using your legs or hips. You make a careless error, compensate for the error with a spectacular shot, then make two more errors, and slowly but surely you slide backward. You never actually think I'm going to net this ball. It's more complicated, more insidious.
I could go on and on. But I'll stop right here.

I'll make one point before I end though. In Freud's terms, everyone consists of an id and an ego. The id is your unconscious, responsible for all the dark desires, the weird likes, the irrational hates. The ego is your "rational" half, regulating everything, making you appear civilized. The problem with superstar autobiographies is that they tamp down on the id, neutering it, which results in a boring book. Open uses Agassi's phenomenal id in just the right amounts -- the result is a fun read.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kalki - Gore Vidal

Narrator: Teddy Ottinger, a bisexual aviatrix

Plot: An American guy based in Katmandu proclaims himself to be Kalki, the final avatar of Lord Vishnu. He claims and announces that he will end the human race on April 3rd that year. He recruits Teddy Ottinger for his mission. How does he plan to do it? Will he succeed?

Verdict: A definite page turner with an unexpected ending. Well, actually 2 unexpected endings ;-)

What the Dog Saw - Malcolm Gladwell

A compilation of random articles that Gladwell wrote for the NY Times. They are all available online too, but somehow I have a preference for reading them on paper. Well, I am old-fashioned that way :).

As you can expect from Gladwell - lots of lots of interesting stats, lots of anecdotes and good story telling. But he does not go beyond the "safe" boundary and make bold statements or conclusions. Nevertheless, it is definitely a fun read and gives a good deal of new information and new perspectives.

The things that impresses me most about him is that he is interested in and collects information/anecdotes from people from all walks of life - from doctors to construction workers to dog trainers. Reading his articles, you realize how little you are exposed to, to people from fields that are not yours.

Read this for a sample:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What I Believe - Bertrand Russell

"A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge" - Bertrand Russell

"What I believe", an essay outlining Russell's thoughts and hopes, written early in the 20th century (1925) is a 40-page successor to his pessimistic world view outlined in "Icarus" . Perhaps one of the boldest and brightest philosopher and writer the past century has seen, most of Russell's thinking has stood the test of time. The reason being pretty simple, his thoughts far-sighted and their basis not ephemeral.

In this essay, Russell starts off with the neutrality of nature, nature being neither good nor bad. This is a direct attack against Liebniz-like optimism and extreme pessimism. He then moves on to define a "good life" (quote at the beginning of this post) and talks in length the importance of both love and knowledge, it's key components. Russell points out the dangers of having one but not the other component with examples. Russell moves onto discussions around morals, quoting that morals and ethics are derived from conflicting desires, a code or rule book that prevents or avoids such conflicts. In the entire essay, Russell is particularly harsh on the church, on religion and even nationalism.

The author also delves into the concept of salvation, the fallacies of education and the tradeoffs involving scientific advancement. Russell is not convinced with the education system in his times (I am not sure if it has changed much) and feels that children lose their faculty in curiosity as they spend their precious years in schools.

Overall, a quick read, many issues that author has brought into light are very much pertinent even to this day. Russell is pretty caustic in some places, but that's when he is at his best.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is God a Mathematician? - Mario Livio

Is God a Mathematician? Is Mathematics the language of the universe? Is it an invention or a discovery? Mario Livio tries to present arguments for and against these questions with chapters from mathematical history, concepts from the umpteen branches of mathematics, anecdotes from the lives of great Mathematicians and verbatim quotes from their journals in a 252-pager thriller. The story-telling in the book is fantastic and I found the latter half of the book particularly gripping. A note of trivia about the author - Mario Livio is the same author who wrote about the "golden ratio", a book and the ratio that got a mention in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

The first half of the book presents the mathematical views of the ancient world like the Pythagorean mathematicians and the works of Euclid and Plato. He talks about the Tetraktys and Gnomons, tools developed by the Pythagorean mathematicians that proved certain theorems by inspection. Mario Livio then dwells into the 4 people whom he considers as the giants in Mathematical progress, in chronological order, giving historical insights into their lives and work. The author talks about Archimedes, who quoted “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth”, for his genius in designing pulley-based contraptions, his work on displacements of liquids and his work on finding volumes of 3-d objects in an age where integral calculus was not known. He then moves to Galileo and his work on the acceleration of falling bodies, his evangelism of astronomy and the invention of the telescope. Then on the work of Rene Descartes, that led to the unification of algebra and geometry with concepts what we call as "Analytical Geometry", a breakthrough in math that made the very foundations of geometry stronger and provable. The fourth great one is of course Newton, for his work on gravity that changed not only the perspective of how we view the falling apple but also it changed the way we looks at the solar system and the universe. As a by product, Newton independently gave us calculus along with Leibniz. Mario Livio goes to exhibit the platonic view these mathematical giants had almost convincing the reader that Math had to be a discovery rather than an invention. But hold on, now there is a twist to this tale.

Till this time in history, Euclidean geometry was considered the ultimate truth and the perceived universe seemed to be behaving consistently with these postulates. Euclid's 5th postulate, the parallel postulate, was taken for granted till geometries of curved surfaces came into existence. Curved surfaces posed a new difficulty, it put Euclidean geometry in a fix as it did not behave consistently with the Euclidean postulates. These new-Euclidean surfaces and geometries gave way in the belief that after all Math is an invention, a figment of human thought. Mario Livio goes into the lesser known mathematicians of the non-Euclidean geometries and mentions names like Gauss and Riemann and skims through their work, the latter's geometry forming the building block for Einstein's theories in the future.

The author moves onto Logic and Mathematics, their relationship, discussing the works of George Boole (Boolean algebra), Bertrand Russell (Russell's paradox) and Kurt Godel (Incompleteness theorem) among others. He briefly writes about Godel's "Incompleteness theorem", another shock that rocked the Platonists. Godel showed that any formal system that is powerful enough to be of any interest is inherently either incomplete or inconsistent.

The last few chapters talk about some examples that show the difference between "active" and "passive" applications of Mathematics. Mario Livio covers Knot theory, a mathematical theory that was studied ages before it's application was found, in decoding DNA knots and strands (passive application). He gives a brief description of string theory too in this context. The theories of relativity - special and general are also discussed and their applications in adjusting clocks onboard satellites is given. The author then discusses the opinion of cognitive scientists on the same, which is mostly that Mathematics is an invention of the human intellect. Mario Livio concludes with the answer "it depends", there is math that occurs in nature whose characteristics we have conceptualized in our minds and there is math that purely occurs as thought.

Overall, an interesting read that showcases mathematics - invented or discovered. The book concludes with a paragraph from Bertrand Russell's essay The Problems of Philosophy -
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.