Friday, December 26, 2008

Tuesdays with Morrie - An old man, a young man and Life's greatest lessons

I chanced upon this book at a book fair and on recommendation from my better half's friend, thought I should give it a read. A light read, Tuesdays with Morrie covers the last class, a series of conversations, between a professor, Morrie Schwartz, and his favorite pupil, the author of this book, Mitch Albom. Morrie Schwartz, a professor at Brandeis is diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, a debilitating disease causing muscle atrophy that comes with a death sentence, a few months after contraction. His favorite student, Mitch Albom has graduated from college, forgotten about his past, fully immersed in the pressures of daily life and is in hot pursuit of career laurels for a full 16 years before he sees his dying teacher on television and tries to get in touch with him again.

Morrie is glad to see Mitch back and they decide to meet every tuesday (as they did in college)and Morrie delivers his thoughts about things that Mitch has made a note off. They cover family, career, death and other aspects of life. As Morrie goes through pains of approaching death, he feels he can shed light to people who have seen life, but not death.

While reading the book, I felt a little bit guilty of my own self-centered busy life, devoting very little cycles to keep in touch with people who have shaped my life. Many of Morrie's thoughts are not new, but once in a while someone needs to highlight them and remind us, this is exactly what the book does. Some of Morrie's thoughts are also borrowed from Zen-buddhism. Though the 180-page book doesn't give any new insights or change your perspective dramatically, it does refresh your values and brings focus into things that actually make our lives worth living. I remembered one of my instructors always telling me to "invest in people", a theme that comes out in the book too.

Here are few quotes from the book,

"Love each other or perish." - The central theme of the book.

"Once you know how to die, you know how to live."

"You're not a wave, you're part of the ocean."

"If you can accept that you can die at any time - then you might not be as ambitious as you are."

"People are only mean when they're threatened."

"Death takes away life, not relationships."
"You live on - in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Ice Limit

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child sure do know how to keep you up all night. You have an important meeting early in the morning but you just can't keep their book down.

The Ice Limit falls under the category of sci-fi that won't require you to keep your brains in the shoe stand while reading it.

Here is the gist:
A team composing of  a few brilliant scientists, engineers and workers lead by a whimsical multi billionare head on a journey to Chile to retrieve what they think is the biggest meteorite on Earth. The density is measured wrong along with other chemical composition tests that result in the meteorite, that's just about 20-30 feet wide (I can't remember this exactly), ending up being over 40,000 tons heavy putting it's density off the charts.
Anyhow they manage to load it up on a ship (and I can go all day about the brilliant equations and explainations involved but I'll leave it for you folks to cherish it).
Due to unforeseen circumstances the ship drowns causing the meteorite to sink to the bottom. Since it happend in 'The Ice Limit' - right where the cold waters begin, most of the survivors are frost bitten.

The few that recover hear news reports of earth quakes and tsunamis occuring and all of them point to where the meteorite sank.

Read the novel to find what the meteorite actually is. Read this novel for excellent (scratch that, outstanding is the word) character portryal. Read it for knee jerking action.

Update - There is a sequel for this novel coming up with a team being put together to reterive/ destroy the meteorite and my oh my, myself and Preetha are excited :)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

History for Indian children, Ramachandra Guha aptly remarks in India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, runs right out of content in 1947.
All that has happened during the last 55 years may filter through the measly civics syllabus, popular cinema and television; history as formally constituted knowledge of the past does not cover it.
But even this overestimates how much recent history Indian children manage to encounter. Images of the past through civics, popular cinema and television? Bah. My civics textbooks were BORING and they had NO context: every aspect of Indian democracy seemed to have emerged in a vacuum. Hindi films may be a treasure trove for sociologists interested in examining the structures of Indian society but someone hoping to glean a narrative of India's 55 democratic years will have to have superhuman cognitive powers if they rely only on our movies alone.

History after 1947 plays no part in our high school history curriculum. And the history syllabus for schools is crucial since it is probably the only time where history is studied systematically. For glimpses of the more recent past, Indian children have only their newspapers to rely on since newspapers will always include a cursory paragraph or two about the related past, even has they report on current events. The paragraph is usually very cursory. ("The Kashmir dispute started in 1947" or "The roots of the current issue go back to the 1975 Emergency"). But enough to at least know what happened and when (well, roughly). But read enough news articles and one could conceivably learn an impoverished sketch of India's recent past.

Why do history textbooks give not even a cursory narrative after 1947? Guha offers one interesting reason:
If, for Indian children, history comes to an end with independence and partition, this is because Indian adults have mandated it that way.
There is definitely some truth here. I once asked my father why we only had the first 4 volumes (covering the events until 1940) of Y. D. Phadke's Veesavya Shatakatil Maharashtra (Maharashtra in the 20th century: Phadke planned to write 8 volumes, each covering a decade until 1980, and finished 6 before he died this year.) My Dad replied that he didn't really need books for the decades after 1940 since he'd actually lived through it!

The gerontocracy of our history-writers (and readers!) is hardly the reason why no narratives of the last 50 years makes it into our history textbooks though. A bigger reason is that there is no consensus on how we view what has happened in the last sixty years -- things are too "controversial" to be discussed with children. Why and how this is so is hardly the topic for a blog-post -- although one can get an understanding of it after reading Guha's book.

So has nothing been written on India about the past 55 years? Well, there is, but it's not history. Here's Guha again:
In the academy, the discipline of history deals with the past, while the disciplines of political science and sociology deal with the present. This is a conventional and in many ways logical division. The difficulty is that in the Indian academy the past is defined as a single, immovable date: 15 August 1947. Thus when the clock struck midnight and India became independent, history ended, and political science and sociology began.
To remedy this, Guha has dug through the "present": through newspaper and magazine archives, through academic and popular books on sociology and anthropology (and of course, his own experience) and crafted a narrative that takes us through India's post-independence years -- all in a cool 800 pages. As as summary of the recent past, I think it's pretty good.

I have a couple of minor quibbles with the book. I wish Guha hadn't crammed 50 years of about films and music into one last chapter called "The People's Entertainments", rather than interweaving it with the tale that occupies the rest of the book. And I would have liked a more detailed narrative of India's economic policies. But in his primary task, that of writing a history of Indian democracy, he does very well.

And along the way, he sprung some surprises on me as well. I had always thought that the Allahabad Court Ruling against Mrs. Gandhi that led to the actual imposition of the Emergency in 1975 was about some substantial electoral malpractices. Instead did you know that 12 out of the 14 charges against her were dismissed? And that out of the two counts on which she was convicted, one had to do with her constructing a dias that allowed her to address people from a dominating position when she gaves speeches, and the other was that her campaign manager was still in government employment when the campaign began! Trivial? I mean Indian politicians do this all the time! The mind boggles. Now I am probably underestimating the symbolic importance of the ruling -- plus the fact that those were turbulent times. All good points. But when one gets one's history from one-paragraph summaries in newspaper articles, (smaller) points like these are invariably left out. (Notice the Wikipedia paragraph I linked to before mentions nothing about the charges on which Mrs. Gandhi was actually convicted).

Reading Guha's book led to a lot of such small moments of revelation (most of which I don't even remember now). And -- which brings me to the real point of this post :-) -- Guha's book comes with an extensive set of footnotes., many of them pointing to notable books about post-independence India. What follows is a list of books (and perhaps an essay or two), about India's "present", topic-wise, culled from the notes, based on my own, somewhat idiosyncratic interests. Most of Guha's bibliography tilts towards books written in English or available translations of books in other languages. Still - something is better than nothing. To avoid making this post bigger than it already it, I have posted it in the comments. Enjoy.
UPDATE: Ha. The formatting gets messed up in the comments so I am posting it here itself.

Nuclear Tests:
Ashok Kapur, Pokhran and Beyond: India's Nuclear Behavior (Oxford).
Hillary Synnott, The Causes and Consequences of South Asia's Nuclear Tests
M. V. Ramanna and C. Ramamanohar Reddy, Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream

Hassan Abbas, Pakistan's Drift into Extremism
Aijaz Ahmad, The Many Roads to Kargil, Frontline, July 1999.
Praveen Swami, The Kargil War.
Rahul Bedi, Dismal Failure: Essays on the Kargil War.
Sanjoy Chowdhury, Dispatches from Kargil.
Guns and Roses: Essays on the Kargil War.

Economic Liberalization:
Rahul Mukherji, India's Aborted Liberalization: 1966, Pacific Affairs 73(3), Published in 2000.
Gurcharan Das, India Unbound (an fairly popular idiosyncratic account of the 1991 liberalization).
A Kochanek, Regulation and Liberalization in India, Asian Survey, Vol 26, No 12, 1986
Supriya Roychowdhury, State and Business in India: The Political Economy of Liberalization 1984-89, Unpublished Thesis, Dept. of Politics, Princeton University

Corruption in contemporary India:
Shiv Visvanathan and Harish Sethi (Eds), Foul Play: Chronicles of Corruption

Narmada Valley and Big Dams:
Amita Baskar, In the Belly of the River: Adivasi Battles over Development in the Narmada Valley
Jean Dreze, Meera Samson, Satyajit Singh (Eds) The Dam and the Nation

Manoj Joshi, The Lost Rebellion
Tavleen Singh, Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors
M. J. Akbar, India: The Seige Within
Michael Brecher, The Struggle for Kashmir
Sisir Gupta, Kashmir: A Study in India-Pakistan Relations

Anup Chand Kapur, The Punjab Crisis
Ram Narayan Kumar, The Sikh Unrest and the Indian State.
Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi's Last Battle
Satinder Singh, Khalistan: An Academic Analysis
Hamish Telford, The Political Economy of Punjab: Creating Space for Sikh Militancy, Asian Survey Vol 32 No 11 November1992

Delhi Anti-Sikh Riots:
Uma Chakravarti, Nandita Haskar, The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation
Anon, Who are the guilty: Report of a joint enquiry into the cuase and impact of the riots in Delhi from 31st October to 10th November (PUDR and PUCL, 1984)

D. R. Goyal, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

Communal Riots:
Dilip Padgaonkar (Ed) , When Bombay burned
Siddharth Varadarajan (Ed), Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy
Ashgar Ali Engineer, Communal Riots in post-independence India
M. J. Akbar, Riot After Riot.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhayay, The Demolition: India at the crossroads.
Christopher Jaffrelot, "The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s"

The Kaveri dispute:
Ramaswamy R. Iyer, Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns.
S. Guhan, The CAuvery River Water Dispute: Towards Conciliation

Chitra Subramaniam, Bofors: The story behind the news

Panchayati Raj/Decentralization:
Mahi Pal, Panchayati Raj and Rural Governance: Experiences of a Decade, Economic and Political Weekly 10th Jan 2004

Muslim Life:
M. K. A. Siddiqui (Ed), Muslims in Free India: Their social life and problems.
W. C. Smith, Modern Islam in India
W. C. Smith, Islam in Modern History. (both famous books but they only go up to the 1940s).

Recent Dalit politics/caste/Dr Ambedkar/Dalit literature:
Jayashree Gokhale, From concessions to confrontation: The politics of an Indian untouchable community.
Eleanor Zelliot, Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar movement
Valenan Rodrigues (Ed), B. R. Ambedkar: Essential Writings
Arjun Dangle (Ed), Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature
Narendra Jadhav, Outcaste: a memoir (translated from Marathi)
Vasant Moon, Growing up Untouchable in India, translated from Marathi by Gail Omvedt
Vasant Moon, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, translated from Marathi by Asha Damle
M. N. Srinivas, Caste in Modern India, Jan 1957, Address delivered to the Science Congress in Calcutta
Chistopher Jaffrelot, India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the low castes in North Indian Politics.
Sudha Pai, Dalit Assertion and teh Unfinished Democratic Revolution: The Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.
Kanchan Chandra, Why Ethnic Parties Succeed: Patronage and Ethnic head counts in India.

1975 Emergency:
Rao and Rao (Eds) The Press she could not whip

Rural Life and Democracy:
Ashutosh Varshney, Democracy Development and the Countryside: Urban Rural Struggles in India

Ramachandra Guha, How much should a person consume? Environmentalism in India and the U.S.

Bombay 1980s (the mill worker's strike):
Rajni Bakshi, The Long Haul: The Bombay Textile Worker's Strike.
Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices, The Millworkers of Goregaon: an Oral History

Early conflicts of the Indian Republic (primarily the reorganization of states along linguistic lines):
Robert Stein, "The Process of Opposition in India"

The China conflict:
Steven A. Hoffmann, "India and the China crisis"
J. P. Dalvi, Himalayan Blunder
Neville Maxwell, India's China War (seen from the Chinese perspective).

On the making of India's constitution:
Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: The Cornerstone of a Nation

Indian Cinema:
Erik Barnouw and K. Krishnaswamy, Indian Film (2nd Edition)
B. D. Garga, So Many Cinemas: The Motion Picture in India
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willeman (Eds), Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema
Narrative Structure:
Nasreen Munni Kabir, Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story
Panna Shah, The Indian Film
Agehananda Bharti, Anthropology of Indian Films, Illustrated Weekly 30th Jan, 6th Feb 1977
N. M. Kabir, Playback Time: A brief history of Bollywood film songs, Film Comment May-June 2002.
Manek Premchand, Yesterday's Melodies, Today's Memories
Bonnie C. Wade, Music in India: The Classical Traditions

Television in India:
Arvind Rajgopal, Politics After Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public
Sevati Ninan, Through the Magic Window: Television and Change in India

Sri Lankan Conflict:
A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: It's origins and Developments in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Sankaran Krishna, Postcolonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the Question of Nationhood.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The 3 Mistakes of my life - Chetan Bhagat

India has seen quite a few English writers in the past, from R. K. Narayan known for his simple, yet lively writing to Shashi Tharoor whose breadth and variety has captured people's imagination. Though I wouldn't place Chetan Bhagat in the same league, he has managed to capture a pretty big audience, the youth of India, between 15 and 30 years of age, by targeting his writing to their needs and basing his works on their lifestyle. After a hugely popular "Five Point Someone" and a popular "One Night at the call center", Chetan Bhagat presents his 3rd book, "The 3 mistakes of my life". Having read "One night at the call center", I wasn't very impressed with his writing style nor his "God speak" theme in the book. But I must give credit to his simple writing style, use of appropriate lingo and realistic description of details. I chanced upon this book, it has been a while since I read a book, so I thought this 250-pager story could be breezed through and would also provide me the required warm-up to bootstrap my reading habit again.

This book is a story that delves deep into the life, emotions and aspirations of a young Gujarati businessman. The story is set in the early part of this millenium and covers many news events like the earthquake at Bhuj, the Godhra train incident, India's spectacular series triumph against Australia and the Gujarat communal violence. Chethan Bhagat narrates the Gujarati lifestyle in good detail with emphasis on the psyche of the Gujarati youth. The story is pretty gripping in the second half of the book. Though Brett Lee becomes Fred Li and Modiji is Parekhji, the essence comes through pretty well in the book. On the flip side, the book reminds me of a typical bollywood movie, love story to fight scenes and all the melodrama in between. I wouldn't put this book in the must read category, but do read it if you want a peek into the society one of the most enigmatic states in India, a state flanked with phenomenal progress on one side and communal bias on the other.
Overall, a light read that can be raced through, if you have nothing else to do.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Elephant, the Tiger, & the Cell Phone

For those who are new to Shashi Tharoor's non-fiction work this might be a good start. It is a collection of essays covering a wide range of subjects from politics, ailing sports except for cricket, the rising economy and pluralistic Indian society. It is a good collection of facts, analysis, sprinkled with sometimes subtle but otherwise straight humor. Dr. Tharoor talks about Indianness in the emerging world of globalization. He touches on oddities such as India being at the forefront in adopting technologies like cell phone but still believing strongly in theories of numerology/astrology may be even while choosing a cell number. This is a serious piece of work one might want to read to get in touch with issues, conflicts, advantages and sometimes plain facts about India in the past 10 years.

Here is Shashi Tharoor on his book..

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe -- Bill Bryson

Close friends know I have been bitten by the travel bug ever since I read Eat, Pray, Love. I have been doing the "I need to go to Italy" chant for the past few months. Bill Bryson's 'Neither here nor there' managed to add just about 30 other places to the chant.

The book is Bill's humorous (not always the laugh-out-loud kind of humor, but the amused-grin-evoking kind) recounts of his travel around various cities in Europe.

The thing I liked most about his potrayals of these various places was how he pays so much attention to the people and the culture itself as opposed to the palaces and the museums and the gardens. Personally to me, that is what is most intriguing about a new place.

The narration has the lighthearted tone of a relaxed back-packer taking his time to soak up the essence of a new place. Facts have clearly been exagerrated here and there to achieve a part-comical, part-acerbic flavor - but that is a humorist's license, is it not?

The Romans park their cars the way I would if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.
The problem is that [in Paris] the pedestrian crossing lights have been designed with the clear purpose of leaving the foreign visitor confused, humiliated, and, if all goes according to plan, dead.

Now, for the nit-picking: on the whole, the book gave me the impression that there were more places that displeased him than delighted. A little more cribbing than I would generally choose to hear :).

Otherwise, an apt book for a travel enthusiast in a very ironical way - it leaves you with the feeling that you've had enough reading about it and you just need to take the next flight.

Thanks to Sandeep for lending me the book! :)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"The Indian Clerk: A Novel" by David Leavitt

The best historical novels -- Gone with the Wind, for example -- make you live history. Immersed in characters, some fictitious, some real, the reader re-imagines the past, filtered through the author's vivid imagination. I was therefore intrigued to hear that David Leavitt was going to write a historical novel about the celebrated relationship between the mathematicians G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan. His new book, The Indian Clerk is not quite a historical novel; at least it is not a good historical novel. It is perhaps accurately described as novelized history. It gives a good account of the four years that Ramanujan spent at Cambridge with Hardy -- an account far more entertaining and fun, than say, a scholarly biography of Ramanujan would be. It is a tepid novel, but a good read.

The story -- of genius found, and lost -- hardly needs re-telling. In January 1913, G. H. Hardy, already famous, and at the height of his powers, received a letter from a man called Ramanujan, a clerk living in Madras, asking for suppport. With the letter are several pages full of mathematics. Hardy, to his credit, a genuine mathematician in those pages. He, and J. E. Littlewood, his collaborator, arranged to have Ramanujan come over to Cambridge. Ramanujan had little formal education, having dropped out of college because losing his scholarship, his obsessive interest in mathematics leading him to neglect all his other subjects. The mathematics he knew was almost all self-taught -- and his lack of knowledge combined with his genius meant that he rediscovered independently many important theorems that others had already discovered before. The collaboration between Hardy and Ramanujan, with Hardy doing his best to channel Ramanujan's genius, was enormously productive although Ramanujan never really adapted to England. Distressed with the food, hampered by the cold, worried about his family back in India -- he left immediately after the war was over. Within the next year, he was dead. He was only 32.

Leavitt tells this story from different perspectives, often in confusing succession. Mostly it is through Hardy, who collaborated closely with Ramanujan but never really took the effort of making him feel at home. Even here, Leavitt switches disconcertingly between telling the story in the third person (with access to Hardy's innermost thoughts) and in the first (as "the lecture Hardy never gave"). We also get the perspective of some other characters: Alice Neville (the wife of the Cambridge Fellow Eric Neville, who, in the book's most overwrought portion, thinks she's in love with Ramanujan), Hardy's sister Gertrude, and G E. Littlewood.

The central theme, the weave that holds these narratives together is the strange effect the arrival of Ramanujan had on these individuals. Leavitt has certainly done a prodigious amount of research and it is a testament to his skill as a writer that he is able to novelize incidents and facts that he has culled from various sources. He is successful in giving a portrait of G. H. Hardy, richly imagining his innermost thoughts. But, and somewhat puzzling, Leavitt leaves Ramanujan alone, and does not even try giving us Ramanujan's version of events. He remains a strange figure, inscrutable, unknown, mysterious. Perhaps that is our duty to genius: novelists may choose to analyze them from the outside, but imagining their inner life is off-limits.

I may perhaps be guilty of wanting Leavitt to write a novel he had no intention of writing. But The Indian Clerk, with its the recycling of events, both true and fictitious, is fun too. What it isn't is transcendent.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The broker

Although this is a fairly old book of Grisham's, I got around to reading it only now. The broker is the story of a cunning Washington lawyer and lobbyist, who amasses money and power by hook and crook. One of his crooked deals gets him between a rock and a hard place. With multiple foreign secret services after his life, he cuts a deal, pleads guilty and gets into federal prison.

The twists begin when the CIA lets him loose with a presidential pardon, so that he can be bait. The CIA wants to know who will come after / kill him. They throw him in Italy in a totally foreign environment and leak his presence.

The real fun begins when the FBI and the CBI get into loggerheads, trying to one-up each other. Backman's cunningness comes to the fore, when he escapes multiple assassins, comes back to Washington and plays the political establishment to clean his life.

An engrossing read, left me on a high. I found it funny though, how Grisham calls it 'hacking', when a user uses an internet cafe to send email. The other references to technology like the smart phones, encrypted email etc all sound quite realistic though.

Would recommend this.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Dreaming in Code" by Scott Rosenberg

Scott Rosenberg's "Dreaming in Code", despite its rather evocative title, is the mundane story of an ongoing software project called "Chandler", a tool for Personal Information Management (PIM). Wait, that's not right. It is a vividly written but altogether-familiar story of software development. A story of requirements ("specs") and disagreements, of delays and deadlines, of plans, of changes in plans and of more changes in plans, of ideals and of pragmatism, and of course, of bugs that make you tear your hair out in agony. The sort of things that are all too familiar, when it comes to coding.

Why then, was it written? Over to Rosenberg :
Chandler offered a look at the technical, cultural and psychological dimension of making software, liberated from the exigencies of the business world. [pg 54]
But I am getting ahead of my tale.

In the post-war era, a project that took on a special meaning with the development of computing machines: the augmentation of human intellect. Here, many people thought, was a tool to rival language, and writing, a tool perhaps to re-invent man himself. The vision has been expressed eloquently: most notably by Vannevar Bush ("As We May Think") and Douglas Engelbart ("Augmenting Human Intellect"). Chandler, an open-ended open-source project, follows in that same tradition.

Mitchell Kapor, the owner of OSAF, and the hero of our story, was the designer behind Lotus 1-2-3, the first widely successful spreadsheet used in the business world. Lotus 1-2-3 made Kapor a millionaire several times over. His next product called "Agenda", was supposed to take personal information management to the next level and from the reviews, it did! -- but it never really took off and Lotus dropped it like a hot potato (see this review by James Fallows, that praises Agenda but also gives a good idea of its difficulties). But Agenda remained on Kapor's mind and in Chandler, he tried to go back to the same feeling that inspired him to build it.

What was this spirit? PIMs like Microsoft Outlook separate their content into silos: there's email, there are tasks, there are lists, there are action items, and so on. But of course there are no such neat categories in human activity where everything is also something else. My email is also a task (not the least because I actually have to type a reply to it), a task or a project involves emails, emails are parts of projects, emails are a way to store and access files, documents. In other words, the decomposition of the artifacts of human activity, while convenient, is also just that: an analytic convenience. Agenda aimed to go beyond silos -- as does Chandler. A personal tool that would not be caught into silos, something that could truly capture the way humans actually worked, and thereby help them do their tasks better.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Programming itself is all about silos. Formalization, which is after all what programs are all about, require us to logically decompose processes and methods into categories. The better the categories are defined, the better a program will work. Overlapping categories and amorphous boundaries, while not unimplementable, are almost guaranteed to break down in some scenario or the other. Still, Chandler was almost a romantic project, a project that followed in the tradition of Bush and Engelbart so it had an open-ended vision, something most software projects can't really afford.

That Chandler could do so was because it was administered by Kapor's OSAF, the Open Source Applications Foundation. This was to be a non-profit project, a project solely instigated by what is called "the programmer's itch", an urge to get something done that starts off with a personal wish or frustration ("I wish I had a software that did this" or "Damn, why can't this calendar software do that??" etc). The non-profit part (which of course depended heavily on Mitch Kapor's deep pockets) meant that the Chandler team was liberated from constraints that come when you program for profit.

But there was a third component that made Chandler special. Chandler was to be open-source and therefore it was meant to harness the forces of peer production. This meant that a core Chandler team would work on the code, while at the same time, at least in theory, relying on a vast array of programmers all over the world. In short it would take the best of the two modes of production, made famous by Eric Raymond: "the Cathedral and the Bazaar". In his essay, Raymond postulates that there are two modes of production. One of them, embodied by the cathedral, is a top-down, command-and-control approach, where a plan is built up and then systematically carried out. The other, embodied by the bazaar, is bottom-up: a group of people find each other and self-organize, without any command-and-control structure. The development of Linux followed the bazaar model -- and the main reason for its success that the internet offered a wide range of tools for a lot of people, all over the world, to collaborate. Raymond's conclusion is what he called Linus' Law: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow".

So, did Chandler's combination of the cathedral and the bazaar work? Its still too early to tell, Rosenberg's book ends with the release of Chandler 0.5 (the most recent version is 0.7 -- the fully functional Chandler release is 1.0, still a long way off). But the book does illustrate the problems of having an open-ended software project. Because the Chandler team could not agree on a set of requirements, they could not get a batch of workable code out immediately -- the release of workable code being a crucial component in harnessing the forces of peer production. But Chandler never quite managed to get the participation that a peer-produced project generally needs and slowly its team slogged on, making compromises, slowly and steadily.

I could go on and on but I'll stop now. Try Chandler out, I liked it, even if I don't quite visualize using it just yet. What did I take away from Dreaming in Code? Perhaps, if nothing else, this quote by Linus Torvalds, his advice for people starting large open-source projects, burned into my brain (pg 174):

"Nobody should start to undertake a large project, " Torvalds snapped. "You start with a small trivial project, and you should never expect it to get large. If you do, you'll just overdesign and generally think it is more important than it likely is at that stage. Or, worse, you might be scared away by the sheer size of the work you envision. So start small and think about the details. Don't think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn't solve some fairly immediate need, it's almost certainly overdesigned."

Words from the wise, indeed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World -- A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs decides to go through the daunting task of reading all 32 volumes (32,900 pages) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and does! The result - this book, a compilation of strange, very interesting facts associated with each word he reads, augmented by his own sarcastic humor about the fact and intertwined with funny events in his life, mostly around his quest for knowledge.

Oysters can change sex according to the termperature of the water. I always knew there was something emasculating about warm baths.
The Greek interrogation mark became the English semicolon. Bizarre, no;
This member of the grasshopper family is named for its unique mating call, which sounds like a psychotic witness: "Katy did, Katy didn't, Katy did, Katy didn't."
A Russian nobleman patented a coffin that allowed the corpse-if he regained consciousness after burial-to summon help by ringing a bell. A good idea. Because that could really screw up your week-to wake up and fine yourself in an airless coffin. I guess nowadays they could put cell phones in there.

An encyclopedia with fun oddball facts. Would make for a nice coffee table book too, given you can turn to any page and spend just a couple minutes to be entertained and informed.

Tidbit: Some other people who have read the entire Britannica: Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, C. S. Forester and George Bernard Shaw.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Kite Runner -- Khaled Hosseini

There is only one way that I like a book or movie to end - with a 'feel good' effect on me. For this reason, I had long dismissed Kite Runner from my hope-to-read-some-day list, despite its long held best seller status. I had heard it was a very emotionally heavy story and I imagined reading the book would be lugging myself through pages of anguish, concluding with a grand melancholic finale. Now that I have read it, I know I was not entirely wrong in my assumptions, but I am more than gratified about not having missed reading it.

It is the story of Amir, an Afghan boy, written in first person. It revolves around his friendship with Hassan, the son of his father's servant. The first part of the story is set in Kabul, during its last few years of monarchy, where Amir's childhood days are spent living and playing with Hassan, going to school, and trying to bond with his well-to-do, socially respected father. Amir and his dad move to Pakistan and then to the United States to escape the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Fifteen years later, Amir returns to a Taliban infested, blood-drenched, scary Afghanistan in hopes of redeeming his lost friendship with Hassan and to "find a way to be good".

The Kite Runner is a great book for many reasons. But most of all, it is a great book for the one reason tales continue to be told and fiction writing thrives - its entertainment value. I saw the book at a friend's place. I flipped to read a couple pages just to confirm my suspicions about the nature of the book. About 3 pages later, I was hooked and it remained to be a page-turner till the very end. The second half of the book has loads of twists and turns (and it occurred to me more than once that our hindi movies would do well to use a few of these ;-) ). [And the finale was not melancholic, though emotions do reach an all-time high :).]

It is also a great book for my most favourite reason: the eloquent writing style. The narration is very simple, yet remarkably effective and passionate. So passionate, it was hard for me to believe it isnt the author's own life story.

While it is obvious that I very highly recommend the book, I would like to sneak in the one minor personal quibble I had - the narration seemed like the author did not want to give allowance for happiness. Amir's life has its highs and lows, happy and sad times. The lows are given just the right treatment - narrated in a manner to evoke empathy in the reader without making it unduly dramatic. The highs, though, are either written in a matter-of-factly style or immediately followed up with hints of impending woe - statements on the lines of "It made me happy, lest did I know it wouldnt last long". But all said, I should add that this is mostly overshadowded by everything else that the book became a best seller for.

Now, also adapted into a movie.

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian Mcewan

[This review contains some spoilers but rest assured they will not, in any way, affect your reading of "On Chesil Beach"]

When Ian McEwan won the Booker prize for Amsterdam, I picked up his "First Love, Last Rites", his collection of eight short stories at the British Council Library in Mumbai. These macabre horror tales about sex made quite an impression on me (In the very first piece a 13-year old boy seduces his 12-year old sister and then, well, something happens). McEwan's style is clipped, almost clinical but the effect he achieves is vivid. Each of the stories was like a road full of ghosts: I'd start reading and finally emerge out of the tale bleary-eyed, confused, and more than a little disoriented, admiring the writing and trying to sort out what exactly the writer was trying to say.

What those stories lacked though was any kind of emotional accessibility -- you admired them, you admired the writer's sheer technical skill and always -- always! -- you ended up saying "Wow". But that was it. (McEwan's last two books, Atonement, and Saturday, are beautiful exceptions to this.)

After the weird experience of reading McEwan's sexually charged horror stories, I am therefore happy to report that McEwan's latest book "On Chesil Beach" returns him to his preoccupations with sex -- but that, despite the horror, it is an emotionally accesible, wonderfully written piece of work. (You can read an extract that appeared in the New Yorker).

It begins like this:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

"On Chesil Beach" is the story of that wedding night and of its heart-breaking consequences. Edward and Florence are the quintessential couple. He, 23, is a working-class boy, who has just majored in history and has a fine career ahead of him. Florence, 22, is a promising musician, a gifted violinist. They met, fell in love, and got married. Their courtship, McEwan tells us:

... had been a pavane, a stately unfolding, bound by protocols never agreed upon or voiced but generally observed. Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition. The language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed, were not yet in general circulation. While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not customary
to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.

As the novel opens, they are both sitting down to dinner, their first night after the wedding, on their honeymoon at Chesil Beach. Dinner, of course, is not on either of their minds. Edward is both terrified of and looking forward to what is coming. Florence has the deeper problem, an almost pathological aversion, almost a distaste, to any form of sex. But she loves Edward
... not with the hot, moist passion she had read about but warmly, deeply, sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally. She loved cuddling him, and having his enormous arm around her shoulders, and being kissed by him, though she disliked his tongue in her mouth and had wordlessly made this clear. She thought that he was original, unlike anyone she had ever met. He always had a paperback book, usually history, in his jacket pocket in case he found himself in a queue or a waiting room. He marked what he read with a pencil stub. He was virtually the only man Florence had met who did not smoke. None of his socks matched. He had only one tie, narrow, knitted, dark blue, which he wore nearly all the time with a white shirt. She adored his curious mind, his mild country accent, the huge strength of his hands, the unpredictable swerves and drifts of his conversation, his kindness to her, and the way his soft brown eyes, resting on her when she spoke, made her feel enveloped in a friendly cloud of love. At the age of twenty-two, she had no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Edward Mayhew. How could she have dared risk losing him?
Should she tell Edward about her fears? Is Florence's aversion something that could be easily explained by the mores of those times (remember we are talking about 1962)? Or does she have a "problem" -- does she need therapy? McEwan doesn't say but as dinner advances and the two lovers circle closer and closer to their moment of truth, he fill us in on the details of their courtship, their greatest hopes, their deepest fears. Somewhere along the way, I found myself actually in the room with Edward and Florence, heart in my mouth, watching with my hands over my eyes, almost like in a horror movie, saying furiously "Dont mess it up, you two -- do NOT mess it up".

Do they mess it up? To say what happens and how it happens would be giving too much away but suffice it to say that McEwan's cold, clinical, almost medical prose is perfect in its pitch and the story of Edward and Florence's wedding night stayed in my mind long after I finished reading it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Secret

I am not a book lover nor do I read a lot of books. This is my first stumbling step at getting a review out.

It was one of those days for me where you feel that your life sucks and so does your job (well this happens to me every second day I am in office) I picked up the phone and called my General Manager in India, and after one hour of complaining on phone on how my career was not moving anywhere. He very calmly asked me if I get posted in a new town will I not manage to find an apartment and settle down, irrespective of how much help I get from others in finding an apartment. I told him I know I will manage.
His perspective about my career was the same, in a nutshell he told me please don’t complain to others look for answers yourself and you will find what you want (If you know what you want). He dint leave me in the dark, before he hung up the phone he recommend this book 'The Secret'. It would be $10 well spend read the book is what he said. I picked up the book from Wal-Mart and for once managed to read through the entire book.

The book is written on "Law of Attraction" based on the working of the cosmos, your thoughts and feelings attract real things in life.
A very intriguing thought process, the book contains interviews from practitioners or teachers who believe or follow the principles of 'the secret' and have been successful.

The excerpt
The Secret is the law of attraction
Everything that's coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it's attracted to you by virtue of the images you're holding in your mind. it's what you're thinking. Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you.
"Every thought of yours is a real thing- a force."


The book focuses on positive thinking (asking, believing and receiving), think or ask from life what you want, believe in your asking and receive what you asked for (I know it sounds like another BS inspirational book).
But if I guess if you are positive and look forward for something in your life it becomes easier to grab an opportunity when it comes to you.
You are expecting things to come to you (Wait on the cricket ground expecting a catch to come to you, you stand a better chance to catch it than the one who is least expecting one)
I never believed in positive thinking being a pessimist myself, but since everything in your life is so much dependent on your thinking and how you perceive life it is worth giving this book a try.
I am not the right guy to explain how this stuff works, but personally life becomes a lot easier being positive and thinking good and looking forward for what you want from life, rather than sitting back and wining; even if you don’t receive what you want, you might probably end up having a better day.