Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tongwan City by Gao Jianqun - a book review

The Hun King and the Buddhist Monk in ancient China

The mention of a Hun King would bring the name of Attila to most people’s minds. However in Tongwan City, Gao Jianqun tells us the story of another Hun King ‘Helian Bobo’  in the same time period as Attila, who established a large empire and created a magnificent new capital city in record time in present day Mongolia. While Attila was challenging the Western civilization, Helian Bobo was rocking the foundations of the Eastern one. From a penniless orphan, Helian became an emperor in a couple of decades. And within 6 years of time and the labor of over 100,000 people, his capital - the Tongwan city was brought to life in 419 AD. Thousands of people died during its construction and they were buried in its walls.

During this time period, China and Mongolia was heavily influenced by Buddhism from India. So enamored had the Chinese Kings become with Buddhism that they sent an army to India to bring by force one of the most well known Buddhist monks of that time – Kumarajiva. It is said that over 30,000 of his followers also accompanied him to China.. Kumarajiva spent the rest of his life in China translating all the Buddhist teachings to Chinese. Though Helian Bobo and Kumarajiva do not cross paths much (except for a brief meeting once) their stories are intertwined in this tumultuous period of China and Mongolia.

The Hun lifestyle was a migratory one with the horse as their main support. Their culture and philosophies are brought to life in this book. There are not too many historical fiction books on the ancient Chinese period and hence readers will find this book provides a window to that past. The writing style is brief and crisp and different from the normal English prose that we are familiar with. However as you get into the novel, it becomes more familiar and you will enjoy the gripping story and unforgettable characters.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Rookie Smarts" by Liz Wiseman - Book Review

How to develop a 'perpetual rookie' mindset

I have never been very fond of rookies – upstart behavior and ignorance puts me off. But the tag line ‘Why Learning Beats Knowing’ attracted me to the book. Being in the knowledge industry that is something that resonated with me.

Reading the book was a good decision – Liz Wiseman shows how an unencumbered mind can gather expertise quickly, and with no baggage to weigh them down how a rookie can perform well in the new world of uncertainty. Further she shows how all of us can keep a rookie mindset even as we grow older.

However a couple of areas are not addressed adequately – (a) you have to be pretty smart in the first place (b) the stories are based on the western culture where an open educational system encourages questioning; I am not sure if rookies will fare so well in the eastern world – where ‘experience’ and ‘rote learning’ are given more weightage than independent thinking.

In many situations experience can be a liability. And most often the experienced person does not see the baggage he or she is carrying. “Rookie Smarts” gives many examples of how one can overcome this and develop a perpetual rookie mindset

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Denial: Self Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki - Book Review

A Great question but an unconvincing answer!

In this book Ajit Varki addresses a very critical and important question that would strike any one looking at human evolution - how come our species is the only one that attained self consciousness? Why didn't any other species cross the barrier? The dinosaurs did get plenty of time - even by cosmological standards, 200 million years is a decent time period.

Most probably I would not have read this book, except that I happened to meet Ajit Varki at a conference recently. (Btw, the conference was 'From Bones to Genomes' at Sitges close to Barcelona - a fantastic conference with speakers like Matt Ridley, Svante Paabo, Chris Stringer etc - making it a veritable heaven for those interested in Evolution, Genetics and Population history). His book was also mentioned in some side discussions and that prompted me to download the kindle version (talk about the benefits of technology!) and take a stab at it.

However the approach of the book was rather surprising. Ajit had decided on the answer upfront - that humans were able to cross the 'intelligence barrier' by being able to deny the inevitability of death. To make it clearer, according to Ajit the barrier that prevents any species from attaining self consciousness is that it will not have the neuronal connections or capabilities to handle the fact that death is inevitable. Only the human brain developed in such a way that both self consciousness and death denial ability developed together at some time (only once) in our past and that was the turning point. The book is then one long argument (in the author's words) to try to convince himself and the reader that the argument is correct. (lot of cherry picking!) Ajit acknowledges that there is no clear evidence to prove his thesis and also acknowledges that it is not falsifiable but does try to be as fair as possible in outlining that. He still gets carried away with his theory and even attempts to compare the situation with that of Darwin's Evolution theory in the late 19th century. But he ignores that Darwin did not start with a conclusion - he had discovered a large number of facts that led him to a conclusion which is not the case here.

The book is an interesting read and the author is a very knowledgable person that makes the narrative fun. But I have to say that his answer to an all-important question is possible but not probable.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Homing Instinct by Bernd Heinrich - Book Review

Home Beckons.....

Animal migration is a well- known phenomenon and most of us do not give much thought to it. If we do think about it in passing, we would imagine that weather and food would be the driving reasons for the animals and birds to migrate and  that they must be genetically programmed to manage the migration process. But in this fascinating book ‘The Homing Instinct’, Bernd Heinrich creates scientific poetry by delving deep into the mechanisms and mysteries of animal migration: how geese imprint true landscape memory; hoe scent trails are used by many creatures from fish to amphibians, to pinpoint heir home if they are displaced from it; and how the tiniest of songbirds are equipped for solar and magnetic orienteering over vast distances.

It will surprise the reader on realizing that even butterflies can migrate over hundreds of miles and some ocean birds can fly thousands of miles without even stopping once! And over the vast ocean landscape how do they even know where they are? Many, many more similar mysteries are covered in this wonderful book. Another real surprise is the deep physiological emotions showed by many creatures when they get back to their home, that Bernd highlights with a beautiful example of the sandhill cranes.

With this as a back ground Bernd then builds up a larger story of what a home means to animals as well as humans and what a home and its creation means for human happiness and survival. The variety of creatures that Bernd covers is mind boggling – from cranes, albatrosses, loons, geese, pigeons to locusts, bees, dragon fly, butterflies, and then to ants, beetles and leeches and goes on to Turtles, Salmon, Eels and many more!

Once in a while, Bernd gets carried away with personal stories and a couple of chapters do get really boring with his hunting stories along with his nephew!. But barring that, the book is an amazing read and a great example of how science can be practiced by observing even the most routine happenings in Nature.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Gem in the Lotus by Abraham Eraly - Book Review

A Gem of Indian Literature!

The Indian Civilization goes back over 6000 years and is the most confusing among all the ancient civilizations. There is not as much grandeur in it as the Egyptian pyramids or the Greek heroes, but there is nothing anywhere in the world to match the Indian philosophies and thinking that are highlighted through the Vedas and great thought leaders like Buddha. However ancient Indian history is documented very little and the grand mythologies of Mahabharata and Ramayana eclipses actual facts to a large extent.

Good books that explain ancient Indian history are also very few; but Abraham Eraly with the ‘Gem in the Lotus’ has created a marvelous narrative that bridges the gap to a large extent. Starting of with a lesson in geology on how the Indian subcontinent and the towering Himalayas were created, Eraly provides a good background to the geography, climate and topography that played a major role in early developments in India. He then describes the Indus Valley civilization and explores the causes of its sudden disappearance. Eraly really excels when he explains the Vedas and takes us through a detailed tour of how they came into being and what we can understand of the social dynamics of that period through them. Intellectually the grandest period for India would have been from 500 BC to 100 BC when not only Buddhism and Jainism came into being, but also the hundreds of other philosophies that disappeared over the subsequent centuries.

Alexander’s invasion and its effects, the first Indian empire of the Mauryas and Asoka’s grand reign are covered in detail. The world’s first treatise in politics and economics – the ‘Arthasasthra’ is leveraged very well to provide us an understanding of the life and culture of that period.

Indians even now suffer from considerable cultural baggage – the most unfortunate of them being the easy acceptance of ‘fate’. Nowhere else will people accept unfortunate events with so much equanimity that Indians can. This might have stood them in good stead at some critical periods in the past, but it has seriously affected their ability for critical inquiry. Though Eraly does not address this directly, through his book one will get a good understanding of the various factors that must have led to such a condition.

Eraly used the title ‘Gem in the Lotus’ as a metaphor for the Indian civilization but I feel that his book itself is a glittering gem of Indian Literature.