Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review - Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
I received an Amazon gift coupon for Rs 200 recently, and I began looking for a book to buy. I zeroed in on 'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates for a few reasons.

One, the book deals with a subject (race) that is at the heart of contemporary social fabric of the US. We wish the country has moved on, but regularly we get to hear of issues and events that only point to the contrary.

Two, the author is a well-known journalist. He works for The Atlantic.

Three, this book, his second, is a very recent one, and the news of its publication is fresh in memory.

The book is in the form of a letter to his 14-year old son, about what it means to be black in the US. Apparently, the book came about after Coates asked his editor why no one wrote like James Baldwin (whose The Fire Next Time, is in the form of a letter), and the editor told him to give it a try.

Drawing a lot from his childhood in Baltimore and many other personal experiences, Coates brilliantly paints a haunting picture of violence. References to brutality are powerful enough to linger in our minds for long. He constantly refers to the body that is always under the threat of being harmed, his feelings of being in a country that has been built by whites with the labour of blacks.

I haven't been in the US long enough to know first hand how race relations play out in everyday lives. I have heard both versions: one, that the country has moved far, far ahead from where it was once; and two, there is still lot of racial ill-will among the whites for the Afro-Americans. Segregation may not legally exist, but in reality it does still, if not so much on the ground, definitely in the mind.

The book paints a very pessimistic picture: almost tells you there is just no hope of anything getting better. I got a feeling that he was going on and on. The bleak tenor was off-putting. One shouldn't be taking so much pains to explain and convince why something will not improve; it should be for the contrary, why there is still reason for hope.

Nevertheless, Coates's autobiographical accounts and his arguments on why he doesn't see much hope, is a good read, giving us a frame of reference to understand the complex topic of race relations in the US.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Interesting US presidential poll season ahead

So it's Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders who are hogging limelight after the Iowa caucuses yesterday.

On the Republican side, while I can understand the sentiments that are bringing in the numbers for Donald Trump, his radical thoughts are unnerving. Between the two, Cruz is preferable.

On the Democratic side, my choice is Hillary, mainly because of her overall career record and experience. Bernie Sanders isn't appealing. He is talking of a policy line that is far too Leftist that one can imagine would work in the US. Barack Obama's policies themselves weren't going down well.

This US presidential poll is promising to be very exciting.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Review: Life is What You Make It by Preeti Shenoy

Life is What You Make It
This is the second book of Preeti Shenoy that I am reading. The first was "The One You Cannot Have". One of my friends suggested that I must read Life is What You Make It.

I am glad I read it.

It's a work of fiction, but it's very real. (Maybe because, as the author herself says, "... it's based on some real-life experiences".)

Ankita, the central character, could be any one of us. Many things that happen in her personal life -- as she moves from an undergraduate course in Kerala to a very coveted Management course in a Mumbai institute -- can happen to anyone of us, albeit in different forms, proportions and intensities.

The book tells us that successes and failures are ephemeral. It's the way we deal with them that finally matters. As the title aptly says: life is what you make it.

The book is inspirational: it is about a fight, not with people but with emotions, with intangible elements, difficult-to-understand perceptions and feelings. Physical scars and injuries are visible; but the hurt that is caused to one's emotions and mind are difficult to understand: not just for others but for the person who is suffering too.

Preeti has a very simple writing style. The story-telling form of narrative makes her work easy to read. The little twists and surprises keep the reader engrossed even while she delves deep into commonplace thought processes, simple as they may seem but could have very defining repercussions.

I won't introduce spoilers here. Pick up the book and read.

Life is What You Make It by Preeti Shenoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review - Connect The Dots by Rashmi Bansal

Connect The Dots
The book is a compilation of thumbnail sketches of 20 entrepreneurs who made it big though they didn't have MBAs or degrees from branded institutions. It also drives home the point that you don't need big degrees to make it big. All that you need is perseverance, hard work and commitment. It's inspirational, especially for people who are dreaming big and aiming high.

Two stars because 1) There are words and long sentences in Hindi for which there are no translations. They look out of place. 2) For each person featured, the heading appears twice, one for the rather longish summary and then again for the biographical write-up. 3) Since these are real-life stories of real persons, the author could have added photographs of people and their establishments. That would have made it more more appealing.

Connect The Dots by Rashmi Bansal -- My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Friday, January 1, 2016

An odd beginning to the New Year

The squabbling between Arvind Kejriwal and BJP leaders over the presumed link between yesterday’s strike by some bureaucrats and the odd-even rule that kicked in today, is a depressing testimony to the way we do politics. It makes one feel that any well-intentioned initiative in this country is under the constant threat of disintegrating into chaos and ultimate failure.


The odd-even rule - that restricts plying of odd and even numbered vehicles to odd and even days - is by no means an innovative idea. It has been tried out in many cities of the world. The only point of interest here should have been how well Delhi’ites adapted to the new regulations; if there were any violators..


On the contrary, all the talk yesterday and today morning was Kejriwal’s allegations that the strike by IAS officers was instigated the BJP to ensure that the odd-even plan failed; and BJP hitting back saying the odd-even plan was bound to fail and Kejriwal was just preparing a ruse to save himself.

The way we have dealt with an important policy decision that has huge ramifications on environment and thereby on our health, in no way portents a promising start to the new year. If AAP and BJP are going to squabble on every important decision, the country’s capital doesn’t have much hope.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book Review -- Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi
An 'unputtdownable' biography. It's studded with lots of information, not surprising, considering the in-depth research Katherine Frank has done. The book starts with Motilal Nehru and ends with the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

The books gives a great insight into the person Indira Gandhi was -- as granddaughter of Motilal Nehru, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, husband of Feroze Gandhi, mother of Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, mother-in-law of Sonia and Maneka Gandhi, grandmother of Rahul, Priyanka and Varun; as a freedom fighter, unofficial hostess of many world leaders who came calling on India's first PM, as hardcore nationalist, a hard-to-beat politician, a go-getter Prime Minister and, as a teenager and a woman.

How much ever the members of the Gandhi family try, they are unable to break free of a centripetal force, as it were; and get sucked into the vortex of politics, and that too riding on a family name, ironically seeming to do more harm than good. Indira Gandhi too was a reluctant politician to begin with. She stuttered and was booed during her first time on a stage in England. She wanted to leave India and she had intensely contemplated buying a house in England. Unfortunately, for her, before she could finalize the deal, someone else had bought that house. The way the highly reluctant Rajiv and Sonia were forced to embrace politics is recent history.

Even though Indira Gandhi ruled the country for a long time, ushered in quite a few reformatory changes, and kept India's flag flying high on the global stage, she never had it easy. She wanted India to progress rapidly, and didn't like people putting spokes in her plans, citing one reason or the other. She didn't believe in dragging things over a period of time in search of a consensus. She would rather get things done without wasting much time. That gave the world an impression that she cared little for democracy, didn't consider divergent viewpoints, and didn't carry everyone along. Surrounded by men, it wasn't easy at all, governing the large, diverse, often riotous nation.

There was trouble from the moment she became the Prime Minister in 1966, to her last days in 1984. Even though the opposition parties in those days weren't so strong, many of her decisions were opposed. With the result, she had to adopt strong and often unpopular measures to push her decisions through. She often seemed to exude the oxymoronic image of a "benevolent dictator".

I liked the book for its every interesting narrative style and loads of information. Definitely worth reading, at least to know a person, a woman fighting all odds, who strode over India's political, economic, social and cultural landscape with a telling impact.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Book Review - Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think
The book tells you a lot about Big Data, the ubiquitous term nowadays.

There is so much of data being generated in the form of text, photos, and videos. Add to that the tons of personal data relating to whenever we do on our phone, like our location, what and how we are reading, listening, surfing the net, using different apps, etc.

Every minute detail of the way we use different apps are relayed back to the developers to get an understanding of the efficiency of the product. Everyone, not just Google, Amazon and the government are gathering data and analysing them, but everyone, including Goodreads.

Big Data is replacing the old cause-and-effect theory of 'if something is done in a particular way, it will have a particular effect", with correlation theory of "if most people are doing a particular thing in a particular way, then most others, if not everyone, are also likely to do that in the same way."

In the earlier era of small data, there was lot of importance to accuracy, but today, in the era of big data, there are more chances of inaccuracies, but that is compensated or nullified by the huge wealth of information that Big Data analyses provide.

The authors also rightly talk about the tyranny of data. Everything doesn't work according to numbers. There are many non-quantifiable and intangible, qualitative and contextual variables that affect analyses.

A good book, written in an easily understandable manner, especially for anyone who wants to know what Big Data is all about and how it's changing our lives.

On the flip side, the authors, in their attempt to explain different aspects of Big Data, tend to get too repetitive.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My search for a BBMP office to get a death certificate

This morning, it took me a good one hour to locate the corporation (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, or BBMP) office in Ulsoor, from where I had to get my mother's death certificate. But little did I realise that there was a pleasant surprise awaiting me.

I knew a BBMP office in Ulsoor. When I reached there, I didn't find the usual crowd, apparently because of the council elections, coming up on August 22. But on the first floor, where the office is, I found an elderly employee.

"No, we don't issue certificate. You have to check with the post office down," he told me firmly.

But, post office? I cross-checked with him. "Yes, post office, in the ground floor," he repeated quite calmly. So, I went down. But, I didn't have the guts to ask someone selling stamps and envelops where could I get a death certificate.

There was a man sitting on the steps at the entrance to the post office. Could be a localite, so I asked him if there was a BBMP office anywhere else nearby where I could get a death certificate. He said the BBMP office upstairs issues only ration cards, and the one in the Utility Building on MG Road issues birth and death certificates.

I headed there, not too far. May be about three or four km away. After looking around and asking a few people, I located the kiosk. There was a board 'birth and death certificates'. When I showed the documents to the gentleman there, he had a good look at it, and said, I had to go to Ulsoor.

I said I did go to the Ulsoor office, and that they had told me they don't issue death certificates. He looked a little puzzled. Then, I asked him if there was more than one office in Ulsoor, and if I could know which one exactly issues the death certificate. He dismissed me saying, ask someone there.

I was back at the very same BBMP office in Ulsoor. But instead of going up to the first floor again, I asked a seemingly knowledgeable man sitting outside on the steps (you always find a few outside government buildings), where I could get a death certificate. He guided me to a BBMP office, about a kilometer away.

I reached there, without any difficulty. But the person there said, the concerned office is another one, half a kilometer away.

Finally, I was at the right office. This was the BBMP Health Office. I walked into a small room, where there were two gentlemen sitting, one of them in front of a computer. With much anxiety on how many more times I would have to come there, I approached one of them.

"Please sit down," he told me with a smile as he took my documents. He read out my mother's name to his colleague sitting beside him at the computer, as I looked around the small room. Even before I could form any thoughts in my mind, he asked me, "How many copies?

With a triumphant look, he also added, "In no other office, you will get things done this fast!"

I was a pleasantly taken aback. "Three?" he suggested.

Apparently three originals is the norm, assuming these originals would be required for official purposes at places like banks. I said, "Yes, three," (so that I wouldn't have to come again, in case I needed more copies). I was still struggling to come to terms with the speed with which things had moved in a corporation office, which is normally associated with bureaucracy and lethargy.

In less than two minutes of me walking into this office, my work was done. All the particulars were there without any mistakes. Obviously, they had dutifully filled them all in well in time.

What's the fee, I inquired, with an obvious glee on my face.

"Rs 100, plus anything extra if you wish," he said, as he resumed his work.

I handed him Rs 120, congratulated him for the highly remarkable level of efficiency, profusely thanked him, and exited.

All the pessimism and the feeling that things will never ever improve in India, which had welled up within me during the past one hour, vanished into thin air in less than two minutes.

Despair not. Things have changed, they are changing, may be slowly. But there is hope.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Midnight courtroom session and death penalty

The last time I stayed up so late, till 5 am, was when Mumbai was attacked in 2008.

The story broke around 11 pm, and it was well past 1 am when we got any idea of what was going on. I finished my pages and sent them to the press, by 2.30 am. By then three top police officers of Mumbai had been killed; and when I came home, I switched on the TV to see what was going on. I went to bed around 5 am unsure of what was happening to Mumbai, and if I would get to know about any more tragic developments in any other part of the country, when I got up next day morning.

Yesterday, when I was leaving office, news alerts came in saying the Supreme Court would hear at 2 am yet another challenge by Yakub Memon against the decision to hang him today morning. After I reached home, I switched on TV to keep track of what was an unprecedented act of the Supreme Court being opened up 2 am to hear a petition.

Apparently, the court entertained the plea to ensure that Indian judicial system was fair and transparent in considering an important appeal like this one.

Though it looked unlikely that the same three judges who had rejected earlier appeals would find merit in a new line of argument put forward by Yakub Memon's lawyers, I sat glued to the television as a tense sequence of events seemed to play out. I didn't want to miss out this one.

What a night it was for the legal and media fraternity! Apparently most of the people inside the court room were media personnel. There was virtually a live coverage of court proceedings. I thought the whole thing will end by 3 am or at the most 3.30. But arguments began only by 3.

Some of my friends too were up tracking this unprecedented apex court room activity, and we discussed the whys and hows, and the possible implications of this.

Finally, around 4.30 news came that the judgment would be delivered shortly. And just before 5 am, two hours before the scheduled hanging, verdict came that the appeal had been dismissed.

DEATH PENALTY

When it comes to death penalty, I have mixed feelings. Actually, my thoughts tend to be with people, wherever in the world they may be, who have had to suffer and even pay with their lives for no fault of theirs.

Most of these acts of crime or terrorism are part of a chain of tit-for-tat or eye-for-eye actions. Every thing is supposed to avenge a past crime. But, eye for eye makes no sense. I always wonder, can't we just forget the past, focus on the problems of the present and get on with our lives.

There has been a raging debate world over, not just in India, on the ethicality and morality of death penalty. There are many arguments for and against it.

In one view, how can one person who has elaborately plotted a crime with the objective of killing people, himself think that he can't be executed? What is the logic behind the thought that a murderer can only kill others, but himself can't be killed? 

THE MANY DOUBTS

Having said that, the fact is that capital punishment is one on a much different plane compared to all other punishments. It always leaves a number of questions unanswered.

At a very basic level, for a layperson, it is difficult to understand what crime exactly qualifies for a death penalty. What exactly is "the rarest of the rare" case? Many times we have seen the death penatly being commuted to life sentence.

My doubts about the righteousness of death penalty stems from how conclusively are we able to prove that an individual has to die; what about others who are party to the crime; there are also so many other related issues.

Court judgments are also a lot about how lawyers argue out their case, and how they are able to convince the judges, who, based on evidences presented, come to a judgement regarding the crime and the punishment. In the whole process, it cannot be denied that there is a lot of subjective interpretations coming into play at various levels.

In a sense, the death penalty can also be seen as an eye-for-eye approach. When a mistake or crime has been committed, the punishment makes little difference to the damage that has been committed. Lives lost don't come back. Properties destroyed aren't restored. Punishments are retributions. I doubt if they even serve as a deterrent.

MY TAKE

I don't think there will be much loss if we reimpose a moratorium on death penalty, if not altogether abolish it.

The Supreme Court in India has made execution a difficult option, with many layers of review. But that process in itself throws up umpteen questions.

My reasoning is simple: most often many questions are asked whether we have been able to conclusively prove the crime has been grave enough, whether it is the "rarest of the rare" to warrant death. Then there are also questions like: if A has been given death penalty, then what about B or C or D. Wasn't their crime also bad enough? Why haven't they got the death penalty? There are appeals and counter-appeals, and it goes on and on; which doesn't look good at all.

Instead, can't we jus opt for imprisoning the convict for the rest of his life with no option for remission, as the toughest punishment?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Windows 10 - my first impressions

Around 11 am today, I opened my Outlook Mail to see if I had got any mail regarding availability of Windows 10 for my PC. There wasn't any. Then I clicked on the small "Get Windows 10" icon on the right end of the Taskbar, the icon that has been there ever since I reserved a copy of the new operating system.

When I clicked on that icon, a small window opened saying that Windows 10 has been downloaded on to my PC, and I had the option to instal it right away or at a later time. Impatient that I was, I clicked on Instal.

The process lasted around an hour, with multiple restarts. And finally, I got the free upgrade to Windows 10, and was good to go.

The Start button

The Desktop -- including the Wallpaper and Shortcuts -- remains as I had customized earlier. That means, I didn't have to make any customization all over again. The Taskbar at the bottom is now a black strip, with the Windows icon on extreme left (reminiscent of the Start button, we all were used to seeing). To its right is a small box to "Search the web and Windows". That's a good new addition.

Somewhere to the middle of the Taskbar are the apps that I have pinned to the Taskbar. This has that very vague resemblance to the Mac feature. (I know Apple fans will be outraged to see any attempt at comparison with their greatest gadget on the face of Earth.)

On the extreme right of the Taskbar are the same stuff, like time and date stamp, notifications, WiFi, battery indicator etc -- only that some of the icons look now different.

The first thing that I did -- well, Microsoft would have expected that from anyone who upgraded -- was to click on that Windows icon, or the Start button, on extreme left bottom. This was touted as the single most important feature of Windows 10, the restoration of the Start button.

Yes, the very same pop-up appeared, only that this time it's a bit broader, with all the most used app on the top left, and below that File Explorer, Settings and Power button. I remember how I struggled to find that Power button in Windows 8.1. Below Power button is "All apps".

To the right of the pop-up is the old live tiles that used to occupy most of the screen in 8 and 8.1. On top is "Life at a Glance", comprising Calendar, Mail, Photos, Weather etc. And below that block is "Play and Explore", comprising Games and and other leisure apps.

Minimize and Close

The other feature I found restored and felt quite happy about was the Minimize and Close buttons on top right when one opens a window. In Windows 8 and 8.1, once you opened a window, if you wanted to minimize or close it, you had to hover the mouse, for the buttons to appear, and along with them, in the most confusing manner, a vertical Menu also would appear on the right, making it all so cluttered and chaotic.

Mercifully, that's all gone, and you don't have to struggle to minimize or close a window that you have opened.

Windows Store

The app store is now available on the computer. That's very much in sync with Microsoft's aim of better integration among all devices. But it's a different matter that all Windows apps aren't as good as their counterparts in Android or iOS.

Cortana

I looked around for Cortana, the personal digital assistant (similar to Apple's Siri and Google Now). But it was nowhere to be found. I gave a search, and Microsoft website told me: "Cortana is available in the following countries/ regions: China, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States." This was a disappointment as I was looking forward to chatting with my PC.

Edge

This is the rebranded Explorer. One new feature is the "Make a Web Note", on top right. Click on it to make notes, draw lines or make a clipping. Otherwise, on first look, Edge looks very much the same. Nothing extraordinary about speed.

Different look

Most of the features, like Settings, File Explorer, Time and Date Stamp, and many apps have a much sleeker and nicer look about them.

Overall, first impression

Good. It looks like a natural progression from Windows 7. It's not confusing and cluttered, and the simpler interface is a big relief for people who are struggling with Windows 8 and 8.1.