Nonfiction

The Innovators: A fascinating history of the digital revolution

The InnovatorsTitle: The Innovators
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 2014)
Pages: 560
ISBN: 9781471138799
Genre: Non Fiction, Computers & Technology, Business
Rating: 4/5

Long before the advent of the computer and internet as we know it now, long before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were beatified as idols of computing and Apple and Microsoft became household names, scores of scientists and engineers had been busy decoding the principles of science, seeking to understand the ways of the machines. Almost a century of discoveries, innovations and generating and executing ideas that helped create the “digital age” is what biographer Walter Isaacson has explored with great zeal and attention in ‘The Innovators.’

But here there are no individual heroes, brilliant thinkers and visionaries who stood above the rest. For Isaacson places teamwork as central to innovation. Elaborating how creativity is a collaborative process, he writes, “The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding ideas handed down from previous generations.” The best innovators are those who understood this trajectory of technological change and all of Isaacson’s characters, be it engineers, scientists, hackers and entrepreneurs, took the baton from other innovators.

When a dream was envisaged by Charles Babbage, his ideas were borrowed and galvanised by Harvard Aiken for his Harvard Mark I. To understand how the first transistor came about is to learn of the collaborative efforts of Walter Brattain and John Bardeen. Steve Jobs built on the work of Alan Kay, who was in turn inspired by Doug Engelbart, who built on JCR Licklider and Vannevar Bush. Yes, this book isn’t a book of lone geniuses and Isaacson, ever so powerfully attests to the romance of collaboration rather than individual effort.

Throughout the book, he singles out the creative genius of the various visionaries and through their stories weaves a wonderful tapestry of human-human and human-machine symbiosis, how each in their own way contributed their share to create a world where new technologies thrive.

The book begins and ends with the story of Ada Lovelace, celebrated as a feminist icon and a computer pioneer, who had a propensity for the marriage of the poetic realm with math. Assisting Babbage on his ‘Analytical Engine,’ she dreamed of a world where “machines would become partners in human imagination.” The saga of the digital age that is ‘The Innovators’ — cataloguing how the digital universe evolved, how technology progressed from transistors and  microchips to personal computers, video games, internet, et al — has amusingly reinforced this idea. Innovation after all happens when you understand the relationship between humanity and technology.

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Categories: Books, Nonfiction, Science and technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A chronicle of a musical life

Ocean to OceanTitle: Ocean to Ocean
Author: Susmit Sen and Sehba Imam
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: September 2014
Pages: 160
ISBN: 9789351362012
Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction, Music
Rating: 3.5/5

Jimi Hendrix, the American singer and guitar virtuoso, when talking about how he was a source of inspiration for many musicians, famously said, “I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” But Susmit Sen, instead of walking in the footsteps of the likes of Hendrix, read the writing on the wall: “This is not for me.” If there’s one thing that a lifetime in music has taught Sen, the frontrunner of the iconic band Indian Ocean, is how ‘originality’ is not only a test of your integrity but also a yardstick to measure your musical genius. And this instinct was what got the band through. In his memoir, Ocean to Ocean, Sen writes, “If I am asked to name only one thing that guided the music of Indian Ocean, I will say originality.”

When Indian Ocean, one of the most creative bands in India, started to lose this very quality, when the band was merely working to a formula, he felt the first tinges of creative dissatisfaction. He rues, “Had we exhausted our originality and lost our ability to come up with new compositions? Or were we losing courage? On the one hand, success encourages you to create new fare, but as you go along, it sometimes terrifies you into staying with the tried and tested.” Finally, on the day the band performed Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye and Old Macdonald had a farm, Sen took a decision to part ways with the band. He recalls, “There is a fine line between expression and circus and I could see it clearly now.”

As you read Sen’s account of his life with Indian Ocean, you gradually begin to notice a few loose ends. Maybe a take from the other band members would have helped clarify a few things. But this is Sen’s memoir after all, and the beauty of it lies in the honest and unarmed manner he recounts it. Divided into 16 chapters, the narrative is dotted with anecdotes from Sen’s life, weaving in and out of his personal life and his musical journey.

You learn about his first brush with Hindustani classical music as he wistfully recalls, “In my attempts to hand around her (the girl he had a crush on), I discovered that her father was a classical music aficionado and a regular at Hindustani music concerts. I figured this was the best way to get close to her, so I tagged along.”

In another chapter, he talks about how Indian Ocean first took shape. “By 1990 we had three bass players, Aseem on vocals, Shaleen on drums and me, finally doing what I loved the most — exploring how my guitar could express sounds that emerged from nowhere and asked to be expressed,” he writes. One chapter in particular, titled Aseem will leave you teary-eyed as Sen recounts Aseem’s harrowing demise due to diabetes.

The hardbound book, co-authored by Sehba Imam, also comes with a copy of the eponymous debut album from Sen’s latest music ensemble, Susmit Sen Chronicles. This album, which will take you back in time to the alluring sound and style of ‘Indian Ocean,’ together with the book offers a captivating look at how Sen had to “swim out of the ocean, only to re enter it once again — this time not for its vastness, but for its depth.”

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Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Harper Collins, Memoir, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blend of Science and Humour

What if

Title: What if?
Author: Randall Munroe
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9781848549586
Genre: Nonfiction, Humour, Sciences, Technology & Medicine
Rating: 4/5

Former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe has gained quite a fan following for regularly churning out hilarious and sometimes absurd cartoons on XKCD, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” In tandem with this endeavour, he had launched his blog, ‘What if?’ where he provided “serious scientific answers” to “absurd hypothetical questions” asked by readers, his responses often dotted with his trademark brand of funny caricatures.

Now, he has collated the blog’s most popular answers in a book called What if?, published in India by Hachette. Munroe, who undoubtedly receives a dozens of questions everyday, has included in the book only those “particularly neat questions” which he wanted to “spend a little more time on.” The book also features updated versions of some of his favorite articles from the site and a few brand new questions which he has answered for the first time in the book.

Some of the questions that Munroe tackles are seemingly bizarre but peculiarly enough, as one finds out after reading the book, they can be explained using rational thought. ‘What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different solar system bodies? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net? How close would you have to be to a supernova to get a lethal dose of neutrino radiation? Then there are questions that Munroe has set aside as ‘Weird (and worrying)’ which he deems unworthy of an explanation, but doesn’t ignore them altogether: Questions like ‘Given humanity’s current knowledge and capabilities, is it possible to build a new star? How fast would a human have to run in order to cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire? Would Thor, with a spinning hammer, be able to create a tornado like in the movie, in real life?’ are accompanied by rib-tickling comments often put forth through cartoons.

What makes Munroe’s work worthwhile is the way he blends esoteric scientific analogies and logical reasoning with an unfaltering comic commentary. His dedication to answer one weird question after another using these facts (complemented with diagrams, equations, graphs) in the most imaginative and simplest way possible, underscores Munroe’s sound understanding of the subject.

What if? is like a textbook for the curious minds who at some point of their lives would have wondered if there is enough energy to move the entire current human population off the planet or while watching Star Wars, if Yoda can produce sustainable energy to power the entire planet. Having said that, even the not-so-scientifically inclined ones among the crowd can devour it.

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 21, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Hachette, Humour, Nonfiction, Science and technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What it means to be a girl in Afghanistan?

KabulTitle: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Publisher: Crown
Published on: September 16, 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, Politics, Social Sciences
Pages: 368
ISBN: 978-0307952493
Rating: 5/5

Life, for a woman in Afghanistan, is unlivable. Here, as is commonly known to the rest of the world, women are confined to their homes, with little or no interaction with the outside world, often illiterate and under the spell of demonising husbands who do not allow them an iota of daylight. What’s frightening is that nearly three-fourth of the woman population live this way: forced into marriage at a young age, subjected to domestic violence at the hands of their husbands who see it as their duty to beat their wives up and pushed to accept the role only that of a child bearer — even the child is the father’s and the woman has no rights on its future whatsoever.

Through The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg offers an altogether different point of view on what it means to be a girl in Afghanistan: a rare glimpse into a distinct life many girls are forced to lead, not as the oppressed sex, but as one who resists the patriarchal norms set by the society.

At the centre of the book is the rise of ‘bacha posh’ — where girls are made to dress like boys — grown as much out of the need for women to be included in the fabric of the society, as of the circumstance where a family is unable to conceive a male offspring. In such families, a girl is ‘designated’ to act like a son of the household, even allowing them freedom to study, work, roam around and mingle with other boys. When they reach puberty, unequivocally most of them are made to revert to their innate girl-status, which for many Afghans is an innocuous process.

But as Nordberg points out, it can have serious repercussions. Through the transformation of Shukur, a bacha posh to Shukria, a married woman, Nordberg reveals how traumatic it is to switch roles all of a sudden. After years of being liberated, not many are prepared for the docile role of housekeeping or child bearing and hence face a bitter future. As Shukria herself puts it, after her failed attempt at getting into the shoes of a woman: Her parents should never have made her a boy, since she ultimately had to become a woman. Nevertheless, there are other contrasting cases. Many families, eschewing societal norms, are much more open to continuing the charade for an indefinite period. For instance, Shahed (Shaheda) and Nader (Nadia), who have revelled in their bacha posh status, hope to continue as a male member of the family and “be out of the marriage market for good.”

Through her portraits of women from various strata of the society in Kabul and the less popular and underdeveloped Badghis province, Nordberg proffers a gripping take on the politics of gender identity in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (the ‘Russian times,’ as one former bacha posh and parliamentarian Azita puts it), the Taliban era and more recently, the US ‘war against terrorism.’ These are tales of determination and grit, of struggle, of rise against oppression, which, in a pertinent manner, offer a glimpse into the never-ending struggle of a woman in the country.

In the course of the book, Nordberg highlights that the practice of bacha posh is not specific to Afghanistan alone. While in the present day, it has risen out of the idea of maintaining a social status, she alludes to similar practices elsewhere in the world — of women masquerading as warriors in Europe and many other places. But is it a violation of human rights? Will it lead to a dysfunctional society, more than it already is? Will the concept of bacha posh perish if the Taliban comes back to ruling? As long as a strict patriarchal society prevails, Nordberg states, there will be resistance. She adds, “Perhaps someday in our future it will be possible for women everywhere not to be restricted to those roles society deems natural, God-given or appropriately feminine. A woman will not need to make an effort to resemble a man, or to think like one. Instead she can speak a language that men will want to understand.”

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