Saturday, 30 September 2017

Book Review: When Breathe Becomes Air

One of those books that re-establish your triviality againt the mammoth forces of nature. 

A super-successful neurosurgeon goes about his business removing tumors and cancers from the bodies of his patients, some times coldly and, at other times, with a lot of emotion, only to find out one day that he himself is afflicted with the disease. 

This highly poignant book takes the reader through the journey of how a common man "faces different stages of his illness with grace - not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would beat cancer - but with authenticity that allows him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned."

It becomes particularly emotional once the author's daughter is born. 

Don't miss the epilogue. 

4.25 on 5 for me.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

Free Will by Sam Harris is a bold, provocative book that holds up a concept that you wouldn't want to be seen supporting in open. 

It works towards establishing that Free Will is an illusion - that all of us act the way we do because of everything that has happened to us or around us, thereby attributing everything to LUCK. So, if you are not a psychopath killer, take no credit for it - you are plain lucky. 

While you can't argue against what Sam intends proving, supporting this book would not be the most politically correct thing. That would, after all, mean you are extenuating all crimes ever committed. 

Free Will equates moral crimes like kidnapping to sneezing, both attributable to things that are beyond our control. The author tries to prove the same scientifically as well stating that our supposed actions can be recorded in EEG 300 milliseconds before we actually commit them. 

The essence of the book is captured beautifully in this statement: "You can do what you decide but you can't decide what you will decide." So much for the FREE WILL. Powerful but not entirely entertaining, I would give it 3.5 out of 5.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Book Review: NIGHT by Elie Wiesel

My review:
Night can be one of the most poignant books you get to read in your life. Extremely touching, the book narrates the plight of people that were shoved into Nazi Concentration Camps during WW-II. 

The author, 15 years-old at that time, too was sent to one of these camps with his family. It wasn't long before he was separated from his mother and sisters. The book talks about human struggle to survive in conditions where the human depravity knew no boundaries. 

The narrative discusses everyday encounters with death and how these encounters converted men into beasts, making them insensitive to death of people around them; their single-minded focus being on gathering food and clothing for their own survival. 

Other than highlighting the atrocities that the prisoners were subjected to, the book also narrates a touching story of the relationship between the author and his father with daily battles of the former to keep the latter alive - till it comes to a point where the son is faced with a dilemma if these efforts are worth anything at all. 

A good read that will make you sensitive towards suppression and tell you the importance of life you are leading. I will give it 4 out of 5.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Philosophy - Know the Know-All Science

Philosophy, which comes from Greek words philo (love) and sophia (wisdom), refers to  rational inquiry about the nature of reality. This basic definition is enough to scare people away from the enigmatic characteristics that this field of study possesses. Philosophy, with its ramifications, has always been considered esoteric. Only people with eccentric minds and plenty of leisure time are believed to be capable of finding the ‘truths and principles of being, knowledge and conduct’. Even the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes himself considered leisure to be the mother of philosophy. Be that as it may, philosophy – with its ability to answer large questions of human existence – still forms an inevitable part of our lives today.

To pay homage to this ‘love of wisdom’ and to create connections between philosophers and the public, world philosophy day is celebrated on the third Thursday of November every year. Launched in 2002, by the Social and Human Sciences sector, this day used to be referred to as ‘Philosophy Day’ until October 2005 when it was given the name of World Philosophy Day after the proposal by the Kingdom of Morocco got acceptance in the 33rd session of the UNESCO general conference.

By inscribing it in the calendar of annual events, UNESCO seeks to promote the role of philosophy in society by encouraging its member states to organize activities on philosophical issues. But what comprises philosophical issues is a difficult question to answer and needs probing. This, though, is not the only controversy entwined with this notoriously difficult-to-define science.

Ironically, the ‘know-all’ philosophy is yet to ascertain the authority, which gave it its name. While some sources give the credit to Pythagoras, others are happy bestowing honours upon Socrates. A few even mention Plato as the father of the term. As if this was not enough, there is disharmony even over the period in which philosophy actually originated. While proper chronicles can be found from sixth century BCE, experts suggest that philosophy – without this name – was existent in prehistory as well. This contention, which has been an apple of discord among various sections, is just a mild extension of a mammoth strife – the eastern and the western philosophy debate.

Though the disaccord between the two philosophies rests primarily on the beliefs that the two systems countenance, there is a contest, also, on who had these profound thoughts first. In some parts of the world it is believed that Eastern philosophy - broadly the philosophies of India, Iran (Persia), China, Japan, Korea and, to an extent, the Middle East – came first, thanks to Vedas (sacred knowledge) that were composed in 1200 BCE. The Upanishads are believed to have, then, made an entry in the eighth century BCE. Western philosophy on the other hand holds on to its ground of being the first entrant, courtesy the chronicles and the coinage of the term.

These controversies, along with many others, may present an unsightly picture but no one can gainsay that it forms just one part of this profound study. The other part with its many facets is imbued with sagacity, thanks to the savants who made appearances through different centuries to diagnose life and give therapeutic methods for coming to terms with life.

Eastern or western, philosophy has witnessed upholders supporting its cause and passing on the sapience from generations to generations. But what makes an interesting study is the way philosophy originated along with the reasons for its coming into being.
Though there is no evidence to demonstrate how East aided the emergence of philosophy in prehistory, enough substantiation can be found in support of Greece as the best option for the philosophy to flourish during the sixth century BCE.

The biggest advantage that Greece enjoyed was its location. Ideally placed for easy trade between Egypt and the near East, Greece witnessed an influx of foreign ideas that accompanied travellers from both parts of the world. This exposure to a wide array of thoughts left the culture of Greece highly influenced and caused contemplation on the nature and validity of the evolving Greek mythos. The geographical advantage was well supplemented with the unique system of Government in providing an environment conducive for philosophy to thrive.

The structure of Greece, which was less of a unified country and more of a collection of city states, led to a larger degree of freedom for its people than was possible elsewhere. These factors combined with the incessant urge of Greeks to use knowledge beyond its practical purposes helped philosophy come into being.                  

The early Presocratics (philosophers who existed before Socrates) spoke of elements like water and earth and the elemental nature of divinities but their expressions were inflicted by myths. It was only with Thales (philosopher from the Greek colony of Miletus, 6th century BCE) that philosophy underwent awakening and broke the barriers of myth. Thales’ idea of water being the first element is still given due importance as this was the first time that something other than a deity was given this honour.

While Milesians (from Miletus) nursed their urge to show the single material stuff of which the entire universe is composed, the philosophers from the Greek colony in Italy devoted concern to practical matters. Led by Pythagoras, Mathematikoi (members of the inner circle of Pythagoras’ society) dwelt upon the relation between life and Mathematics and saw patterns in life that could be described in terms of mathematical tools. They promoted life as a small portion of a greater whole and thought of soul as the immortal divine air whose existence outlives the relatively temporary functions of the human body.

While Pythagorean philosophy was gaining ground in the West, East was imbibing the concept of ‘The Middle Path’ introduced by Gautam Buddha. After leading an ascetic life for six years, Buddha concluded that enlightenment could be attained only by following a balanced life rather than an austere one.

Along with other teachings, which included Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truth) and Dharma (Righteousness), Buddhism also spoke of Atma (soul) being the real source of all bliss. It is the importance assigned to the soul that indicates the exchange of ideas between East and West. The possibility of Pythagoras’ acquaintance with Buddha has not been ruled out. The Pythagorean belief of soul’s ‘transmigration’ into other living bodies at death found a supporter in Buddhism, which firmly believed in the cycles of reincarnation. 

With a thematic structure to follow, philosophers from the fifth century BCE gave philosophy a new dimension by introducing critical thinking. It was also in the fifth century that the concept of plurality of components was introduced. This concept, which was a deviation from the Milesian belief of the universe being made up of one material stuff, broached ‘atoms’ as tiny, indivisible, unobservable solid bodies. It was stated that the collision of atoms was responsible for everything happening in this world. The proponents of this school of thought were called the ‘atomists’.   

The fifth century also saw the birth of another breed of philosophers. Known as ‘The Sophists’, these philosophers taught the youth of Athens the art of using logic and rhetoric to win over opponents in arguments. Their pedagogy also included topics like politics, grammar, etymology, history, physics, and mathematics.

Sophists never considered the search for truth as their top priority. On the contrary, they professed that it was the preparation for the business of public life that had to be acquired to be successful in the then litigious social life of Athens. Since these skills were considered indispensable in those settings, the practitioners of such skills commanded very high fees. It is also believed that these ‘givers of sophia’ were the first in Greece to exact fees for teaching wisdom.

Accused of pandering the youth’s passion for a successful political career, the sophists never fought shy of boasting about their ability of making the better cause seem the worse, and the worse the better. Whatever flak they got would be insufficient to deny them the credit of giving the next generation of philosophers an invaluable gift: skepticism.                             
The theories emanating from different schools of thought had resulted in a condition of unrest, which could only be alleviated by undertaking the route of critical thinking (skepticism). Critical thinking in the fifth century, though prevalent, was bereft of self-criticism. It was Socrates – supposedly the most influential thinker ever - who introduced to the world the concept of calling ‘everything’ into question.

In his early days as a philosopher, Socrates was more inclined towards the scientific theories discussed by his predecessors. Later, his focus shifted towards the ethics and he delved deep into the development of moral character. He preached the citizens of Athens and taught them the art of enquiry.

Though his teaching earned him a lot of loyalists, the parents of his disciples accused him of corrupting their children. This accusation  combined with others,  such as inventing new deities, and disbelieving in the divine made him a controversial figure.   He was sentenced to death by drinking poison in 399 BCE. Rejecting the other option of leaving Athens, Socrates preferred drinking ‘hemlock’ to die an honourable death in his home country.

Socrates’ legacy was carried on by his famous disciple Plato, who conveyed his master’s spirit in his writings. Plato, then, found an able student in Aristotle, who furthered the teachings of his master and went on to become the teacher of Alexander the Great. The philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle dealt with fundamental issues with such profundity that this trio is believed to be the most venerable in the history of the West. The same position is held by Confucius and Lao-tzu in the East. Siddhartha and Mahavira (founder of Jainism), though considered philosophers, are counted in a different league.

From a less distant past, the likes of Rene Descrates, Immanuel Kant, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein et al are believed to have possessed the ability to question assumptions and challenge the unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions.

Be it any era, philosophy seems to have welcomed only those souls as its ambassadors, who had the courage and willingness to challenge. The challenges may have been immense but so has been their importance. The pursuit of wisdom may seem paralysing, but it is hard to imagine a more worthy goal. It is to this journey from darkness to light that the most fecund minds of this planet have committed their lives. That, according to Plato, is the requisite for being a part of the elite group called ‘philosophers’.

The journey of the mighty pen

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Not many would be unaware of this quotation by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But one, somehow, gets the feeling that this statement is too mild to emphasize the importance of pen in our lives. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that we live because somebody wrote.

Pen is one of the many articles, which evolved with the evolution of man. As the man progressed, his need to communicate increased. Language was hardly into being, so he started off by making symbols on the cave walls. He used his sharpened tools – meant for skinning and killing - for scratching the walls. These symbols used to depict his daily activities like planting and/or his encounters with the beasts.

Symbols as language

Over a period of time, the instrument and the base for writing changed but the language remained the same. Pictographs - as these symbols are now known as - held their prominence for centuries before they were replaced by alphabets somewhere between 1700 and 1500 BC. The base changed to portable clay-made tablets to thin sheets of wax (which could be melted and re-used), while the crude tools gave way to the instruments made from the reed.

It took alphabets quite sometime to become popular. Where pictographs couldn’t suffice, a combination of pictographs was used. The method of combining pictographs to represent words for ideas, today, is referred to as the ideographic system.

Ink – The fuel for writing

Writing took another step forward. It went well beyond the chiseled pictures or cuneiform (the wedge shaped marks produced by reed). The Chinese invented and perfected 'Indian Ink'. Originally designed for blacking the surfaces of raised stone-carved hieroglyphics, the ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin and musk.

Though ink became popular in 1200 BC, it was into existence much before. In fact, it is believed that invention of ink paralleled the introduction of paper. Annals suggest that the ancient Egyptians created pictographic system in about 3100 BC by drawing on Papyrus – a paper like material made from papyrus plant. Moreover, one of the oldest pieces of papyrus known to us today - the Egyptian "Prisse Papyrus" - was also written in ink. It dates back to 2000 BC.

The plant juices and animal blood were used as ink before “ink” could become popular. Various values and symbols were attached to various colored inks. For example, green denoted freshness; blue denoted revelation and purple denoted royalty.

Writing Systems

History clearly awards the credit of early writing systems to the Greeks. Even the earliest examples of handwriting are attributed to Greece. The Greek alphabet was developed in around 500 BC. Before that, the Greek script was just an adoption of right-to-left Phoenician writing, (Cadmus, the son of the king of Phoenicia, is believed to have brought alphabet to Greece).

Greek documents of that era show one line written from right to left and the next line from left to right. This method is called boustrophedon, from the Greek words meaning, “ox-plow turning”. It is believed that Greek was the first script to be written from left to right.
The striking fact is that all the writing systems had only uppercase letters in the beginning. No clear reason is known, but it is believed that the instruments were not refined enough to draft the nuances.

From reed-pens to quills
If the Greeks clinch the honor of being the forerunners in writing systems, Romans can boast of creating a reed pen, which stands closest to what we use today. The reed-pen was made from the hollow, tubular stems of marshy grasses, especially jointed bamboo plant. One end of the stem was cut so that it took the shape of a pen nib. When in use, ink was poured into the stem. This ink was held through adhesion to slow down the extreme free flow.

The  reed-pen was used extensively for centuries and then the quills came into picture. Quills are said to have dominated the writing systems for more than a thousand years. Made of bird feathers, they were introduced somewhere in 700 AD. It is, obviously, much after the tanno-gallate of iron ink made its appearance. Created in 400 AD, this ink - a composite of iron salts, nutgalls and gum - remained in use for centuries.
Quill selection was not a leisure activity. It was done with utmost care. The strongest quills were chosen from living birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favoured because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer.

Goose feathers were the most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey.
Despite being the most dominant writing instrument, the quill also had its share of disadvantages. The first problem was its short life. It could be used only for a week or so before it was necessary to replace it. The other disadvantages included high preparation time and the necessity of a stove-with-coal, which was kept beneath the writer’s high-top desk so that the ink dried early.

Quills to Fountain pens

While the quill-pens were being used heavily, attempts for designing a reliable reservoir pen were also going on.

Various kinds of reservoir pen made appearances before the mid-19th century when, fountain pen became popular.The earliest historical record of a reservoir pen dates to the 10th century. The sultan of Egypt in 953 demanded a pen which would not stain his hands, and was provided with a pen which held ink in a reservoir and delivered it to the nib via gravity and capillary action.

References to reservoir pens can also be found in Daniel Schwenter’s famous work Delicia Physic-Mathematicae (1636). The German Orientalist and inventor of scioptric ball talks about a pen made from two quills. One quill served as a reservoir for ink inside the other quill.

Though 1850s witnessed a stream of fountain pen patents and pens in production, the oldest known fountain pen that has survived today was designed by a Frenchmen named M. Bion and dated 1702.

Between 1702 and 1884 – when Lewis Waterman patented the first practical fountain pen – a number of pens were developed. But these models were plagued by ink spills and other failures that left them impractical and hard to sell. The failure can be attributed to an imperfect understanding of the role that air pressure played in the operation of the pens. Also, most inks were highly corrosive and full of sedimentary inclusions.

Incidentally, the invention of the practical fountain pen, like many other inventions, was also the result of man’s reply to the frustration caused by a mischance. Lewis Waterman - an insurance salesman - after destroying a valuable sales contract with leaky-pen ink, thought of adding an air hole in the nib and three grooves inside the feed mechanism.

Fountain Pens to Ballpoint pens

The invention of ballpoint pen is yet another example of man's answer to disappointment. The Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro, frustrated by the amount of time wasted in filling up fountain pens and cleaning smudged pages, decided to make a pen that worked with the ink used in the newspaper printing.

The ink was thicker and, hence, dried quickly. When tried, this viscous ink wouldn't flow out of the regular nib of the fountain pen. Laszlo, along with his brother George (a chemist), devised a new type of point. He fitted this point with a tiny ball bearing that was free to turn in a socket. As the point moved along, the ball rotated, picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on paper.

Like fountain pens, early ballpoint pens also met failures. Biro's was not the first attempt to create a ballpoint pen. It is argued that a design by Galileo (during the 17th Century), was that of a ballpoint pen. A patent dated 1888 on the same basic idea, was unused and expired.

These earlier pens leaked or clogged due to improper viscosity of the ink and depended on gravity to deliver the ink to the ball. Dependence on gravity caused difficulties with the flow and and required that the pen be held nearly vertically.

The Biro pen, which used capillary action for ink delivery and solved the flow problem, became so popular that it is a generic name for ballpoint pens in many parts of the world.
Today, pens have all sorts of designs and working mechanisms. There is no count of the kinds of points, nibs and inks being used. Science and technology are being spoken about at every nook and corner. But as the Vietnamese saying goes, “When eating a fruit, thank the person who planted the tree”, we must be thankful to the inventors of this instrument, which has recorded and conveyed feelings, thoughts and what not.

In fact, there can’t be an invention more important than this, for where is science without any records and where are records without a writing instrument?

English is a 'fun' language

Do you find something interesting in ‘Abstemious’? Read on… ABSTEMIOUS. That’s right. Abstemious, which means indulging only moderately in food and drink (as per Oxford dictionary) has all the vowels slotted in a sequential order. So has FACETIOUS. Facetious means treating serious issues with inappropriate humour. If you really take it upon yourself to find more words with such peculiarities, I am sure you will find more but that these are the two most common words with such an oddity comes with some assurance.  
English has often been touted, though sarcastically, as a ‘funny’ language thanks primarily to the quirky pronunciation the language subjects itself to. Examples abound!
‘To’ is pronounced as ‘Two’ while ‘Go’ is pronounced as ‘gO’.
To add to the woes, there is an innate borrowing that has happened from various languages across the globe. Déjà vu? Now before you declare your verdict on the language, what if I tell you that English is more fun than ‘funny’? What if I tell you that OK originated as an abbreviation of orl korrekt, a jokey misspelling of ‘All Correct’.
There is a deluge of entertainment lying unchartered under the wings of the language, which is supposedly one of the ‘highest-worded-languages’ in the world: An entertainment so potent that it possibly drove a mad man to contribute in the making of one of the finest dictionaries in the world. Yes, you read it right!
Oxford English Dictionary (OED) wouldn’t have been possible, had it not received contributions from the prolific Dr. W.C. Minor, who while imprisoned in a lunatic asylum consistently sent material to the chief editor of OED, Sir James Murray. The relationship between the two men has been captured beautifully by Simon Winchester in his masterpiece, The Professor and the Mad Man.
The fun, however, is not confined to words alone. A truckload is waiting for you within the precincts of punctuation. Read through the following story:
A husband, really angry with his wife, pasted a note on the front door which read:
“A woman without her husband is nothing”
A smart kid was passing by and he thought of a mischief. He took out his pen and scribbled something on the note. Now, the note read:
“A woman: without her, husband is nothing”. The wife came home and gave her husband a big hug.
That’s the power of punctuation in English. It can ruin or preserve the language and, in some cases relationships as well. Lynn Truss, in her book Eats Shoots and Leaves, explains this power in a reasonably engaging manner. The book starts with a Panda joke which drives home the point beautifully.
Now a few ‘do you knows’?
  1. Do you know that English is the most widely spoken language in the history of the planet?
  2. Do you know that one in every seven human beings can speak or read it?
  3. Do you know that half of the world’s books are written in English?
  4. Do you know that over 75% of the international e-mails are written in English?
Such affection for a language which has been mimicked at from different quarters of the world is spell-binding, isn’t it? The spell, though, becomes a bit of a pain when you have to explain the following to an inquisitive first-grader:
  1. Today we speak, but first we spoke. Then how come today faucets leak but they never loke?
  2. Today we write, but once we wrote. Then how come we bite our tongues, but we never bote?
  3. How come there is no egg in eggplant?
  4. How can noses run and feet smell?
  5. Plural of tooth is teeth but the plural of choose is not cheese.
This befuddlement that can drive some crazy is, to a certain extent, responsible in making the language so challenging and thus so endearing.  The charm also comes from the fact that English, since its inception, has been like a welcoming host that receives words from a whole lot of languages and makes them a part of her family.
Look up Samosa in a reputed dictionary and you will understand. Till that time spend your time with this alluring language and keep exploring.
References used:
  1. Online Oxford Dictionaries.
  4. Richard Lederer, Crazy English, Pocket Books, New York, 1989, pp.117-118.

Book Review: Leader in You By Dale Carnegie Associates

Despite the promising introduction that the book starts with, it has nothing new to offer. It is just one of those thousand self-help books swallowing the shelf space in book stores. “Leader in you” by Stuart Levine and Michael Crom fails to meet the expectations raised by the name associated with it i.e. Dale Carnegie & Associates Inc.

True that the book has a good number of interesting anecdotes about timeless stalwarts like Mother Teresa, Lee Iacocca, Bela Karolyi and Dale Carnegie himself, but one expects more out of a self-help book. To disappoint, it has a very superficial approach to it. It tells you what it takes to be a leader but doesn't talk about the methods and techniques of acquiring such traits.

The scope of the book is also very narrow. The stories emanating out of the same set of companies make you feel as if you are going through the research reports of certain companies rather than a motivational book. Having said that, there are certain chapters which leave you with thought provoking ideas. 

Most of the chapters start with an anecdote or the other from Dale Carnegie’s early books - How to win friends & influence people and How to stop worrying & start living. If you have already read those masterpieces, you are bound to feel more frustrated by the shallowness of this book. This one clearly seems to be an attempt to encash on the genius of Dale Carnegie. This is evident, also, from the front cover which has the name “Dale Carnegie” written in a font-size bigger than the font-size in which authors’ names have been written.

In all, your likelihood of falling in love with this book is miniscule. But if it is the first self-help book that you are reading, you may LIKE it. That’s it.